Monday, May 24

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, May 24, 2010 24 comments
If you've participated in critique groups, writing workshops or online forums, you may have seen or heard someone's piece criticized for being "overwritten." But what does that mean exactly? gives us a few useful definitions for "overwrite": write in too elaborate, burdensome, diffuse, or prolix a style: He overwrites his essays to the point of absurdity. write in excess of the requirements, esp. so as to defeat the original intention: That young playwright tends to overwrite her big scenes.

From these definitions, let's break down the key terms.

Overwritten fiction is...

too elaborate--its tone and voice don't fit the characters and situation.

burdensome--it is dense and difficult to understand.

diffuse--it goes on tangents, lacks focus.

prolix--it rambles and it explains more than it needs too.

exceeds the requirements, defeating the purpose--it uses the same effect repeatedly in a scene, sucking away power.

In an upcoming series of posts, I'll examine examples of each of these overwriting "sins" so you can identify them in your own work, then discuss solutions.

Are there other frequently-used critique terms that confuse you?


  1. I look foward to knowing how not to repeat my 'sins!' I used to diffuse, but learning the elements of writing a good argument helped.
    My last professor critiqued that I have talent; but that word does confuse me! How do you define talent and is it subjective? Have a great day Laurel!

  2. This is a good point, and one I need to focus on. I think I tend to overwrite during regular scenes, and then jump to short sentences during action, which makes the flow choppy. Good post!

  3. I do a lot of what JEM does. Trying to find a balance is hard!

  4. Can't wait. You already know this is a weakness of mine. :)

  5. I look forward to these series of posts!

  6. I used to be a huge over-writer. Then I started looking into what it would take to be published one day in the future. Wow - I've been learning a lot. I'm quite proud of the fact that my first drafts are a lot cleaner and tighter.

  7. Ooo, I am so guilty or this sometimes, so thanks for the reminder. Most of the CP terms I know pretty well, but I'm not so good when they start talking grammar and telling me things are dangling participles and stuff. I have no idea what that means. *blushes*

  8. Ironically, your example is overwritten!

    Here is MW (, showing clearly how violated this rule:

    transitive verb
    1 : to write over the surface of
    2 : to write in inflated or overly elaborate style

    intransitive verb : to write too much or in an overly elaborate style

    I mean, who the heck uses the word PROLIX?

    Is that really a word, or a prescription drug?

    If you violate that rule, are you prolixicating?

    Will be called a prolixicator?

    Can I drink prolixor? What would it taste like?

    I vote we delete all words from the English language which sound that freaking arrogant.


    - Eric

  9. Lynn: can't say that I'm really qualified to define "talent," but it might be a good topic to post about for the contoversial fun of it.

    JEM: overwrite and underwrite, yup. I know just what you mean.

    Lydia: That's why I love revision. In drafting I just let the words flow, no matter how crappy they sound.

    Janet: Most of us do it at some point. It's nice to have lots of material to work with in revision. :-)

  10. I am guilty of this as well. Although I think of all the definitions, I am more inclined to prolixity (yes it is a word, I looked it up) than anything else.

    Can't wait for the rest of this series.

  11. Good breakdown. Look forward to reading more about it.

  12. Theresa: I hope the information will be easier to digest broken into smaller chunks.

    Jemi: even when rewriting I can overwrite a little. I love my CPs' ability to see it every time.

    Shannon: Dangling participles, good future post topic. Thanks! Sorry to say I'd need to look it up since I don't teach grammar and have largely forgotten the special lingo from my grammar and editing classes.

    Eric: Ha! I'll have to pass your compliment along to my CP who's a lexicographer for M-W. I like the fact this wordy definition gave some hooks on which to hang my thoughts.

    My boss happens to love the term "prolixity," but she's a college prof. and scholarly journal editor. I say let the pompous academics have their fancy words since they don't get much in terms of respect or financial reward.

  13. Anne: Prolixity is one the the harder "sins" to identify on your own, I think. But I'll go into more detail in future posts.

    Karen: I started writing explanations and decided I had too much material to cover. I hope the series approach proves helpful.

  14. Wow. This is timely. I was just mean, told that I am an overwriter. At first I was like, wha? I always thought I wasn't putting in enough description. Oops. If you want to use excerpts from mine as an example for all to benefit from my grossly, overwriterly behavior, I would happily sacrifice my pride:)

  15. Great post and great idea for a series here. I'm really looking forward to it. :)

  16. Great idea for a post! I tend to be an underwriter, but I'm sure some of the "sins" still apply.

  17. Great explanation! Very simple and easy-to-understand breakdown. I think I might underwrite more often than overwrite - I find my CPs asking for more information more frequently than they ask for less.

  18. It's something I have to be careful of, though a sort of rambling wordiness is also part of the humour of my writing. It's a difficult one to get right.

  19. Tina: It's possible to overwrite some aspects and underwrite others. I critiqued a piece recently in which the dialogue was overwritten, but there was almost no description at all. Balance is the goal. And thanks for offering up your work, but I don't want to put anyone on the spot. I'll likely create examples or be the whipping boy myself.:-)

    Sarahjayne: Stay tuned. I'll be on a MWF posting schedule this week.

    Elle: Some folks who draft sparse on details use wordy sentence constructions and repetition of effect, so I think the series should have something for everyone.

    Heather: Overwriting can be as much a tone and usage problem as overabundance of detail.

    Stu: I will be careful to differentiate stylistic differences from real problems. I'm not a Hemingway-esque writer myself. But even lush writing requires some restraint, right?

  20. Great post. I look forward to reading more about this.

  21. Excellent post. Overwriting is probably my biggest pet peeve when I read. I can forgive bad writing before I can forgive overwriting.

  22. Christine: Thanks. Stay tuned!

    Natalie: I'm more forgiving perhaps because it's my own particular weakness. But I do sometimes have the urge to pull out the red pen and mark material to cut from some books.

  23. This is awesome. Can't wait for the rest of the series and will definitely link to this in our Best Articles This Week for Writers post on Friday.

    Suggestion for additional discussion: Wordy vs. Overwritten.

    Thanks so much!


  24. Oh, and one more thing that would be great to cover: line-by-line tension!