Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, November 04, 2014 14 comments
Too much of a good thing.... (photo by jycleaver, morguefile)
Dear Editor-on-Call,

I was just asked to beta read a piece from a very good writer friend and lo and behold, she is an overwriter. I am, too, to some extent, but this is excessive. Of course, I want to be gentle when I send this back, but if I was completely honest, I would be bleeding all over the page. Personally, I relish crits that I get back covered in red, because I see it as an awesome learning experience, but others are quite a bit more sensitive than I am. I'm worried that she is one of the sensitive ones. Egads, I don't know what to do here. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely,
Wannabe Gracious

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Dear Gracious,

I've faced this issue before, too. And I'm a recovering overwriter myself. I'd suggest refraining from line editing the whole piece at this stage. General comments and especially questions will be more helpful to your friend, and less likely to wound. Something along the lines of "you have some very vivid descriptions here, and some that I think would feel stronger if you pared them back," then line edit a sentence to show what you mean. In areas where she describes the same thing six ways, try a margin question: which of these best captures your idea here? You can also recommend that she take a look at Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover, which will provide great guidance for the revision process.

Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity. Be sure to sandwich the idea of "you need to trim and simplify" with encouragement about what she does right: her characters are likeable, her emotions real, her humor funny, her plot attention-grabbing and the like. Overwriting is so often a sign of lack of confidence. Build her up in the right way, and she'll find the courage to trim.

Any other sage words for this advice-seeker? How do you typically approach critiquing an overwriter? 

Have an editing or revision question? Ask away. I'll tackle it in a future post.

14 comments:

  1. Very good advice Laurel. I've had to give feedback like this before. Usually, an over-writer knows what they do and is looking for some suggestions on cutting back the darlings without losing the overall sentiment.

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    1. So much depends on how experienced the person is, I think. Newer writers are often so high on the creative experience, they find it hard to separate themselves from their work, and you have to tread very carefully to not crush their spirits.

      More experienced writers, as you say, often want feedback about which part of their overdone descriptions or which instance of a repeated effect readers find best and most compelling, then they can trim away the less effective ones.

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  2. This is such good advice!! I can actually apply this to my own over writing tendency (which makes it hard for me to recognize the flaw in others, as well). I especially like the "Which of these best captures your idea here?"

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    1. In the Self-Editing book I'd mentioned, they talk about and give lots of examples of a concept they call 1+ 1 = 1/2. Meaning that repetition of effect and over-description can cut the effectiveness in half.

      I don't think overwriting is that terrible a flaw if you're willing and able to be selective when you revise. I've read too many books that are underwritten--that takes loads more work to correct (you have to generate lots more material, rather than make judicious trims).

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  3. I appreciate learning something new today!

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    1. Glad it was useful. Thanks for visiting!

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  4. Good posting! And timely . . .as I'm beta-reading for an overwriter right now myself.

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    1. Glad to hear it was useful and timely. Wishing you all the best with your beta reading.

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  5. Good tip. It's tough but I like the idea of giving the general feedback with one or two examples and letting the writer discover what's happening.

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    1. This technique could work for any repeated vice a CP has--show an example and let him/her learn to see and correct it.

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  6. I like the ide of showing a specific example of what you mean and letting the writer go through the manuscript to weed more out. The lesson will stick better that way & also won't make the author feel so beaten up.

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    1. Absolutely. It puts the control back in the author's hands, helping them feel empowered.

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  7. Though I'm an underwriter (and always getting feedback from my CPs that says, "This needs more description!" ;) ), I've critiqued for many overwriters, and I agree with sandwiching advice in between compliments. Many overwriters are excellent with description; they just might need suggestions on which descriptions they need.

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    1. Isn't it nice that we aren't locked in with the vices of our early drafts? We can revise! There are lots of other kinds of overwriting besides descriptions. I have a bad habit of writing too much in dialogue that might be more effectively compressed in narrative. I've seen others who go a bit too overboard with action beats in their dialogue.

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