Friday, January 02, 2009

Overwriters Anonymous

Dear Overwriter,

We need to talk about my editing pet peeve. And, well, to put bluntly, it's not me. It's you.

I know that you think that saying things in a straightforward way is boring. I can tell, having worked through about sixty grueling pages of your writing in the last week. If only your content wasn't so good, I would kick this project away and wash my hands. But curses! Your story is so good. So instead, I need you to work with me a little here.

The thing about your overwriting, Overwriter? I mean, even worse than the fact that it's terrible and embarrassing for you. It's just boring. It's going to be the thing that makes people put your book down and never buy it. I know that in your mind, this language was a good idea. You clearly put a lot of time into stringing together as many adjectives, adverbs, and "replacement" nouns that struck you as interesting. So I'm gonna need you to try to be honest with yourself and flexible with me here.

Some short tips for you, Overwriter.

-Every noun need not be accompanied by both and adjective and a modifying adverb. For example, "dazzlingly brilliant hues." Maybe that example sounds ok to you standing alone where it is right now (and actually, it's really not ok--none of the words in that string are interesting or unique, so why not just say it simply, instead?), so let's picture it in a string:
The flirtingly feathery fringe of Mary's perfectly fitted jumper was incredibly intricately embroidered in dazzlingly brilliant colors and hues.

Unfortunately, because of the composition of that sentence, you didn't leave me with anything I wanted to read.

-Alliteration. Just... try not to let it happen. Flirtingly feather fringe? I know it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I promise. You won't regret letting it go.

-Try to keep an eye open for unnecessary restatement. "Colors and hues" is the same word twice. "Last and final"--same word twice. "Ultimate and concluding"--yup. "Sharp and puncturing"--close enough. But that brings us to

-Try to avoid using verbs as adjectives too much. Colorful verbs are great--as verbs. Don't take away their punch by overusing them. Or "proliferating" them, as you would like to say. What is it with you and the word proliferating?

-Most of your problems come down to dialogue tags. It's ok to use the word "said," even if you use it more than once. Really. You can just say "Jackie said" instead of "Jackie sneered jeeringly" or "Jackie continued her bombastic harangue, her outraged grimace flickering as a sympathetic smirk fought its way to the surface." Repeat after me: WORDS SPEAK LOUDER THAN DIALOGUE TAGS.

-As you might notice from the above example, when you overwrite something you make it... well, much less meaningful. What you have above doesn't even make sense. Do you really want to confuse your reader by plugging together "big" words that don't make sense? Every word you add is another word you have to be able to stand by. (I can't believe I'm actually going to break this down, but maybe the exercise is worthwhile.) For example, is Jackie's harangue REALLY bombastic? I don't think it is. Earlier, you described Jackie as shy and retiring. Why would her character suddenly change for a dialogue tag? But even if her harrangue really is bombastic, the words "bombastic" and "harangue" have different nuances. When you put them together, the nuances clash and, well, you sound a little dumb. So... maybe try to think of a different way to express it. Or better yet, "said."

-Don't try to stand by "bombastic harangue," dear Overwriter. The reason? All your fellow overwriters LOVE the words "bombastic" and "harrangue." Here's a short list of some of the words overwriters love (and when you find yourself using them, perhaps pull back):

jeer (jeeringly)
sneer (sneeringly)
coax (coaxingly)
sudden, suddenly (everything can't be sudden, I'm sorry. Some things just happen without any suddenness at all; most things, in fact.)
anything that ends in -ingly (ok sometimes, for some people--but not for you. Sorry, you just lost your privileges.)

Dear Overwriter, the most futile and frustrating fact (unnecessary nonsensical alliteration! Did you spot it?!) about this whole letter I'm writing to you is you don't know who you are. Overwriting, I've learned, is a condition of blindness. At least, I can only hope it is--if you actually realized how terrible your overwriting was, I hope you wouldn't have sent me your manuscript anyway.

So I'm just going to have to put in a plea here that you try not to spread your disease among other writers, and that you maybe have a stiff drink (or two) before you tackle my ed memo.


(A slowly recovering Overwriter--one day at a time, people. One day at a time.)


Ann Victor said...

Moon Rat, do you mean I can't use colourful consonants, careful cliches or even eloquennt exclamations anymore? (pout)

Anita said...

"I have to watch myself on the dialogue tag," I said, biting my lip, suddenly.

Thanks for the hilarious reminder!

magolla said...

I'm amazed that you would still be editing on page 60, or for that matter why the story was even bought if it had so much work. Give the writer an example of the problem and send an invite to resub when THE WRITER does all the basic fixes.
Is a story like this really worth ripping your hair out?
And yes, I understand that this is probably the compilation of numerous manuscripts strung together, but ... are you crazy? No wonder editors need copious amounts of Tanq, Jack, or any one of their brothers.

Brian F. said...

There are days I wish my blog was anonymous so I could do rants like this.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh wow. I feel so much better now, because I always thought I was an overwriter. At least I (suddenly) know now that I am not pouring forth alliteration or adj+noun+adv strings or other egregious overwriting techniques. Although I do tend to be too wordy; can't deny that one.

Emily Cross said...

Excellent Letter
aw i'll admit i'm an over writer but at least i'm not blind to it (i hope lol)
Really helpful for us with the OW condition.........

I blame my english teachers love of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia and hate of boring 'said'

Kristin Dodge said...

It's OK. You can say it's Stephenie Meyer.

Cory said...

I lapse into overwriting too on occasion - if only because I feel compelled to show every single expression on my characters' faces when they say something - but all of a sudden (!) it doesn't seem quite as bad.

Colleen_Katana said...

Great post, Moonie! And important things for all us writers to keep an eye out for.

Hope you had a great New Year!

Anonymous said...

Have you been reading Christopher Paolini?

AC said...

Preach on, Moonie. For what it's worth, a journalism degree cured me of (most of) my overwriting tendencies.

Maybe you could require OVERWRITER to read Strunk and White: "Omit needless words! Vigorous writing is concise." That was drilled into our heads in college so much I can now quote whole passages of that book--it's brilliant and indespensible.

Aerin said...

Kristen wins the prize for making me snort hot tea laughing!!! And then anonymous with Christopher Paolini.


The only thing better than your posts, moonie, are your witty followers (most of them. not me.)

HoodChick said...

Great tips, if I ever suddenly get around to writing any of the stories rattling around in vivaciously blonde head I will most certainly keep this for reference.


Stuart Neville said...

Okay, so this has sent me scurrying back to the short story I wrote over Christmas, with my finger primed on the backspace key...

Ian said...

In my current WIP, I cut out almost five pages of JUST ADVERBS. Gosh, I sure like to use them, I think embarrassedly.

Anonymous said...


Dear Moonrat, have you any idea how depressed every unpublished writer feels after reading that entry?

Really, most of us faced, and overcame, that issue five years before we even started looking for an agent. Yet you’re saying a big-time editor has received (presumably from an agent) such an amateur MS?

Gonna go hit my head against the wall now.

Pamala Knight said...

Dearest Moon Rat,
Thank you for the lesson and the encouragement with your latest post. I appreciate the fact that even those who've sold a manuscript persist in overwriting and so, don't feel quite so dreadful at the state of my own work. Personally, I'm an extremes kind of girl--either overwriting or producing a manuscript that is sparse to the point of drabness--just the facts. LOL.

It's nice to have someone take the time to offer some useful advice about writing skills. This example offers encouragement because obviously the writer's 'voice' and plotline are both strong enough to have you working like mad to whip it into shape. We should all be so lucky someday to have the same experience.

Aimless Writer said...

But very good advice.
I tend to skim over that flowery stuff anyway when I read. I don't care that feathers are flirting.
Question: where is the balance. Dean Koontz has an amazing vocab but sometimes I skim him too. Where is the balance between enough and too much?

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

Oh crap... good advice.

Happy New Year, by the way

Justus M. Bowman said...

I recently put down a book because it was overwritten. I couldn't stand the stench of its smelly, stinky similes!

Alex said...

Dear MoonRat,

I understand. A long time ago, when I was much younger, thinner (not richer) I pitched an old hag of a manuscript to more agents then I’d care to shake a pitch letter at. One assistant took the time to call me after reading the first few chapters of my yet to be published and appropriately dormant book. He said, “you have to work on your writing and thereby your overwriting.”

In life, most things sneak up on you, stealthy; the seeds of future success planted in dismal failure (must remember this as I wax poetic).

For the next few years I toiled away at a new project, carefully crafting my sentences, trying to balance the structure, pondering every word, fearful of this animal you describe above. Gently trying to lull the reader. Safety. Story, begin secondary to the characters and their lives and their tart natures. Story being more universal, structure being almost a McGuffin. I’m not saying I’m the literary world’s gift to writers, I’m not saying I’m brilliant and amazing and that there isn’t always room for improvement.

The sometimes sundry and chewable, often discarded blog posts and comments we bounce, and pass, as writing, well, it often bypasses the almost physic quality, intimacy, of writer to reader. Blogging is quickly replacing everyone’s view of what writing is, as more writes must blog, instead of actually write. The need for promotion, far superseding the focus of the well crafted word and story. The balance is hard to find, as more and more publishing companies are halting the acquisitions process.

So now it is the story, because you’ve acquired the work and want to make it polished and sellable, that tells me that story is more vital then actual writing. Must focus on story. Story is king, more then writing, the two, sadly, are dysfunctional twins, constantly fighting and never at ease with each other, often throwing drinks at each other in crowded rooms.

Am I overwriting, or just being long winded. Oh the anxiety.

Sandy Cathcart said...

I love this post! Came at perfect time because I'm working on final edits. I bet I've done some of this without realizing. Thanks, Gracious, Shay Shay!

ElanaJ said...

This letter is made of awesomeness! Thanks Moonrat! I know I have another round of revisions (le sigh) and I'm going to read this letter before every session! Thanks!

cindy said...

i had IRE and SLUMBER axed. haha! love this post! moonie genius!

Charles Gramlich said...

This post carries needles fit to puncture a few windbags. I'm going to go check my wip now.

netta said...

It's not nice to make me snort hot coffee out of my nose first thing in the morning.

Hilarious and dead-on.

Now, I have to clean up this coffee mess. Heh.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I ... must wonder how old the author is. And whether they own a shiny new thesaurus. And how blindingly amazing a story needs to be to make up for writing like that, I mean, seriously.

Joe Iriarte said...

I know I tend to write too long. I can barely write a short story that's under 10,000 words. Hopefully I'm not as bad as this person, though. (Actually, I'm pretty sure I'm not, based on the list you provided.)

My current WIP was 120,900 words after the first draft. I now have it down to a lean fighting weight of 83,602. The difference wasn't adverbs and adjectives, though. It was scenes that accomplished little and pointless reflections by my protagonist that were really chances for me to intrude.

Oy. Just call me Selfindulgentwriter.

(KristinDodge cracked me the heck up too!)

clindsay said...

If you ever find yourself in danger of overwriting, read some Ernest Hemingway. The man made an art of spare writing.

peggy said...

Great post Moonie, I finally got it most of the way down pat, selling articles teaches us to cut out the flowery stuff and get to the point. I've been told by my publisher to add more flowery words LOL. I write like I talk, together LOL. Now for more coffee myself, since it's all over my keyboard. :)
Hope you have a great 2009 by the way :)

Jill Wheeler said...

I do love my sneers and jeers.

JES said...

You need a little red-rubber stamp you can apply to offending manuscripts (or Web sites, come to that) -- one which says just, "OW."

Let them figure it out. :)

Anonymous said...

You are, as always, unfailingly unflinching and uncompromising in your observations. What a wonderfully warm-hearted wrecking of writerly faux pas that tend to trick tender but often tendentious masters of written verse into believing their craft is both cognizantly cogent and brilliantly brilliant beyond all measure. Ah, I suddenly feel a bitterly biting need to imbibe in a biblious brew. Cheers.

Whirlochre said...

Not the gyrates?

I grew each and every one in a hydroponic sac slung from my pelvis for the whole summer.

Jennifer Hendren said...

LMAO...excellent post, though I must defend gyrates! (g) When it's used well, of course.

And I'll admit to be a sudden/suddenly addict. I'm trying to curb my habits, tho. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

That was a great rant - if only it didn't make me (suddenly) self-conscious...

Love you, Moonie. Brace yourself for an argument from the overwriter... just a guess.

Jodi Lee said...


Miriam S.Forster said...

Dang, I'm glad I was finished drinking my water before I read this. :-)

Funny, when I was a bright new writer, this kind of thing didn't bother me. Now it gives me the jibblies....

Natalie said...

Brilliant post, and I think even "underwriters" can suffer from one or two of these.

I have my security blanket (dialogue tags, cough) that riddle my first drafts. But I know to cut them in revisions.

Scobberlotcher said...

Just wonderful! Glad I found you via The Swivet.

Anita said...


I also dig gyrates. And gyrations. gyrater a word?

Must forget Moonrat's advice just this once and find a place for gyrates (in some form) in my novel.

Katherine said...

Perfect timing, Moonrat! Thank you so much! I'm going to start revising my NaNoWriMo first draft soon.

As many of the above posters have noted, even those who don't overwrite may have to check for some (or all) of these. I'm going to read this over before each revision session.

Thanks again!

Nora MacFarlane said...

I loved your loud, bombastic declamation expressed with strong emotion... (grin)

Ebony McKenna. said...

oh ... dear.

I prattled out a long response and realised that kind of defeated the purpose. Instead, you are in my heart and I send you warm fuzzies and hope you have a good supply of chocolate at the ready.

Melissa said...

*evil giggle* Oh that's so me... well, it was... I'm hoping I'm getting better.

But I think by pointing it, you may help more than you think. It's like when someone points out a quirk you have... you notice it. No matter how annoying it becomes. :)

Thanks! Missy

Authoress said...

Delightfully written and hard-hitting -- thank you!

I used the word "undulate" 4 times in the first draft of my second novel. Fortunately, Mr. Authoress was kind enough to point it out.

And still teases me about it.

Jill Corcoran said...

Great post. Thanks!

I included it in my post, EVEN MORE WRITING TIPS.

Let's hope everyone heads your advice.

BuffySquirrel said...

The flirtingly feathery fringe of Mary's perfectly fitted jumper was incredibly intricately embroidered in dazzlingly brilliant colors and hues.

Why? why? You hate us, that's why!


I don't overwrite (I hope) in the colourful sense, but more in the redundant sense. I try to catch it in the editing.

Jennifer Hendren said...


Ha! Funny I should happen by at this moment because I was just editing my MS and came across this paragraph:

(my MC is at a dance club with some friends)

Several men ogled us and tried to move in. One got up behind me and proceeded to gyrate suggestively against my rear end. I shoved him away. “Get off my ass!”

I'm fairly certain that's the only time I use it. LOL.


Anonymous said...

I find this blog entry very depressing. Is it just me?

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I'm not entirely certain if the word "gyrate" should ever be used, to tell you the truth, or if, like "tiddliwinks," it's one of those words that can only be brought out for special occasions once every 50 years or so. I can't think of the last time I've had to use either in a sentence.

Brilliant post.

Kingmidget said...

Now if only this post hadn't been so filled with typos, missing words and major grammar problems, it might actually have some credibility behind it. :)

Joe Iriarte said...



Dude, if you don't know that junk words are pretty much *the* feature that separates the polished from the merely adroit, you've got a lot of learning to do. She doesn't need credibility to say what she's said here: I can easily find a half dozen print and online sources that back her up, probably without leaving my living room. She's not making this up herself.

Are you really going to use a typo or two on a blog entry as your excuse to ignore good advice?


Good luck, then.

moonrat said...

Thanks, Joe. I make a lot of typos, since I write so quickly on my blog and am a poor self-editor, but every time someone brings it up it's like an arrow in my heart.

Crimogenic said...


Don't take it to heart. I don't know a person who doesn't make typos or a grammar mistake or two on blogs. That is unless you're a machine, which I'm beginning to believe you are, you know, with your books per year ratio. :)

Anywho, blogging is something that even Strunk and White would go easy on.

Dara said...

I know I fall into this trap :P I can tell when I go back and read a chapter I wrote a few months prior, and I cringe at how much overwriting is there. Sometimes I don't catch it all--but that's what my critique group is for :P They catch my mistakes a lot.

One thing I know that bothers me, even as I'm writing, is using silly dialogue tags other than 'said.' That's something that bugs me a great deal when I'm reading--an occassional one is fine but as you stated, the dialogue should speak for itself.

Dal Jeanis said...

"colors and hues" is the same word? Nope.

"Hue" is a subdivision of color, having to do with the specific tone. There can be blue shirts in four different hues, for example. Or you can have four different colors, and no hues to be seen -- different basics, like blue, green, yellow and red.

However, if the phrase is a cliche or otherwise overused, then kill it dead anyway.

kingmidget said...

I don't disagree with Moonrat's point. It's totally valid. The problem I have is with editors and writers who don't bother cleaning up their own writing before critiquing the work of others. There's an old saying about glass houses. Yeah, yeah, it's a blog and you did it quickly and just put it out there. Well, it's out there now and speaks to how much you care about the product that you put out.

angelle said...

um seriously? this is a freaking blog, not the new yorker. as long as moonie is rItINg LyK dIS, i seriously could give a flying fuck if she has typos or not. TYPOS. not egregious errors. not lack of ability to string together coherent sentences. TYPOS. give her a break. if everyone expected everybody to self-edit a blog post the way you might edit a submission to a literary journal, we'd never get blogs written. and given moonie's busy schedule, we'd also never get any of the insights that she so graciously bestows upon us. this is a freaking blog. get over it, man.

Alyssa said...

Oh, dear. Suddenly I'm not so proud of all of those brilliant, carefully polished gems of alliteration sprinkled throughout my college essays. (Although I will continue to believe that alliterating in a sentence about alliteration is awesome. At least let me have some small pleasures?)

Froog said...

Have you read anything of the Irish novelist John Banville, a glorious overwriter? He seems to make it some sort of private joke to include the word 'flocculent' at least once in every book.

Sarahlynn said...

Ouch! Why does the back of my hand suddenly smart?

(This one is one of your funniest blog posts ever; thanks!)

Lyrist said...

Brilliant. I think we need more letters like this, personally addressed and shipped off ASAP, or e-mailed.

Or maybe billboarded.

Glen Akin said...

Dear Moon Rat,

I have two words for you: Rob effect.

My overwriting technique is the best, so suck it up.

Yours sincerely

Stephenie Meyer

PS: Paolini says he hates you. I agree with him.

lexcade said...

i love you. you're a hero to overwriting overwriters everywhere who are overwritingly overwriting as we speak, i lauded.

sylvia said...

I searched through my WIP to see if I could find examples of this.

Suddenly I am aware at how often things happen in a sudden fashion.

Dammit. I was sure you didn't mean me. :(

just Joan said...

Excellent post. My word processing program is kind enough to point out my spelling and grammar errors, but me thinks it is lacking on the over writing front.

All you computer genius type people out there get right on it and create me a program for OW. I want to click a button and have it insert "ow" (in red lettering) next to each instance of overwriting.

Oh wait, that's what my critique group is for. Never mind. ;-)

Daisy Whitney said...

Down with bombastic! Down with harangue!

Great post, great reminders.

Larissa said...

This is exactly why I love you, Moonie.


About Me... said...

Overwriters is some form of Blindness. It's true but there is hope!
Alliterations annoy me. Oops, sorry. I'm on my way to recovery. Finally I have embraced my dear friend "Said" and ditched all those over wordy tags. Adverbs I can zap with a search and find of "ly". The evil that is finding it's way in my work now is the "unnecessary restatement", ooo, that is a tricky one to see but I'm getting better.

And an itchy butt is not good.

Sarah said...

I always thought I overwrote. Now I realize I'm just verbose.

estrella05azul said...

Liked you post very much, maybe because of the sarcasm :)

I'm currently reading the Twilight saga, and after the 1st book I'm taking a break for a few weeks to get my head cleared from all that overwriting.
I like the ideas, but it seems more like a movie script (if anything...) than a novel.

Thanks for all the point outs, great advice for an emerging writer to keep in mind.

maine character said...

Excellent tips. As said above, one can always nix adverbs by running a search for "ly" words. In fact, a guy on the Absolute Write forum posted a macro to catch just those words (and leave alone words like "family"). Not sure if it works, but it gives a good idea of how to make your own.

About dialogue tags, a few years back my niece was big on a book she just got, and I tried a few pages but couldn't get past the dialogue tags. "They were horrendous," she articulated, irritatingly. Of course, ever since, I haven't heard enough of Twilight.

Mafagafos são reais! said...

"Everything can't be sudden, I'm sorry. Some things just happen without any suddenness at all; most things, in fact.)"


"anything that ends in -ingly (ok sometimes, for some people--but not for you. Sorry, you just lost your privileges.)"

Spoke right to me! Thank you for this great post! Hehehe

LilySea said...

I'm almost embarrassed to admit it but I searched my manuscript for each of your blacklisted words and came up with (whew) none of them EXCEPT about a million sudden/lies. Reduced them by a good 70%. That was super helpful, (and really easy) thanks!

Melissa Pearl said...

Wow - okay, that was good.
Thanks for the straight forward, unflowery, completely helpful advice :)

Hillary said...

Just wanted to take a moment to say this was hilarious. Thank you for the laugh!

Laura Sherman said...

Yes, but...

I think overwriting is better than not writing. If someone is starting, if they're finding their voice, they may need to "overwrite" a bit before they calm down.

Good points though! I enjoyed reading your article and love how you insert humor effortlessly. Nice!

Clair Devers said...

Great advice. Stephen King covers some of these points as well in his book (On Writing) which helped me kill a ton of unnecessary words. I don't miss any.

Samantha Manzella said...

Hilarious and yet so true. Thank you for this post; it definitely made my morning a little brighter. :)

Audrey Briggs said...

Maybe over writing is like insanity - if you think you are insane, it is a good indicator that you are not insane. So, if you worry about overwriting, at least you understand the concept and probably will not overwrite (as much or as suddenly).

Personally, I like a few typos in blog posts - shows passion and authenticity and a "push the damn post button" fearlessness.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Hello, my name is Martina and I'm a recovering Overwriter.... Love, love, love this post! (See?) I'm going to read this before every chapter revision.

Thanks so much for this!

sally apokedak said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I agree with all of this except for the alliteration bit. I won't give up alliteration. I'll die with my unpublished manuscript clenched in my grubby hands, first.

Well...the alliteration examples you gave were awful. I'll give you that.

Midget, dude? Don't ever go to my blogs, please. I am the typo queen.

Most bloggers don't have editors and all writers need editors. Show me a blog post with no typos and I'll show you a person who is spending too much time blogging and not enough time on real life work that will actually help pay the bills.

Many of us love agents and editors who take time to instruct us. For free. Out of the goodness of their hearts. Please don't try to shame them into silence.

Moon Rat would have been hypocritical if she'd horridly overwritten her post knocking overwriting or if she'd given a harangue (bombastic or otherwise) against typos in a post riddled with typos. She did neither. Chill dude. Enjoy the ride.

Sarah G. said...

Excellent post. Now, show it to just about every writer out there, and you'll be set.