Wednesday, May 26

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 22 comments
Overly elaborate diction is what most think of when they hear the term "overwriting." I'd argue it's just one facet of a tendency to go thick, lush and heavy-handed when drafting. The trick is to identify and correct it during revision.

Advanced vocabulary
Your characters' word choices show us who they are, so it's important to be accurate. Generally word choices should be consistent with a character's age, level of education and socio-economic status. Just as a fifth grader wouldn't discuss post-feminist hegemony, a college professor wouldn't call his enemy "stinkypants."

There are exceptions, however. You might sprinkle in words like "indubitably" and "elementary" to show that your fifth grader fancies himself an amateur sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. A social climber might adopt fancy lingo but misuse it. A grade-skipping child prodigy would wield her vocabulary like a weapon.

As you revise, be willing to question your word choices. Advanced vocabulary can communicate some things you don't intend. It gives the impression that you, the writer, are insecure or a bit out of touch. It can also taint your characters with a popular stereotype: the evil genius whose intelligence is paired with heartless ambition, or the socially awkward hopeless nerd whose head is stuffed with useless knowledge.

Literary devices
As I wrote in this post, sound devices can be an effective tool to make your work sing. But if you're too heavy-handed, it sounds silly or just plain annoying. Generally assonance (repeated internal vowel sounds) is less jarring than alliteration (repeated initial consonant sounds) or rhyming, so you can be a little freer with it.

How heavy is too heavy? I don't have a hard and fast rule. If sound is a big piece of your style, you'll have a hard time identifying overkill. Ask four or five trustworthy readers who get your intent to help you trim all but the best of your devices.

Metaphor and simile can quickly become overdone. Beware of the tendency to describe every detail through comparisons. Watch out especially for inept comparisons that don't fit the character or situation. Stephanie at Hatsheput posted some hilarious examples of simile gone awry.

A whole-work "controlling metaphor" or motif is often fine, however. If done well, it can unify and strengthen your work. Sarah Dessen's Lock and Key, for example, uses the motif of doors, keys, fences, houses to examine what makes a place home, and people around us family.

Allusion can be an effective way to say a lot in a small space--your reader will pour in all the context without your needing to explain. But if the book, film, song or historical event you reference is too obscure, it hinders rather than helps your reader. A character whose thoughts are filled with allusions to pop culture will come across as shallow and lacking original ideas of his own.

Name dropping brands is another type of allusion that becomes irksome quickly. Call your fleece jacket a "North Face" once, then stick with generic terms like fleece or jacket in subsequent reference.

Take extra care when presenting a character whose regional accent isn't mainstream. The best way to handle dialect is through word order, cadence, grammar and word choice. But go lightly, especially with regionalisms like "youse guys" or "blimey" or "y'all." And as much as possible, stick to standard spellings. If you've done your research and can imitate the cadence and use the right lingo, your readers will "hear" the dialect without the tortured spellings.

Which of these diction areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?


  1. Awesome post, I feel exactly as you do about regional dialects. I can't stand when someone writes a character phonetically, it completely takes me out of the story.

  2. Great post, although to me overwriting has more to do with verbosity than any of these things (save simile and metaphor - they lead to overwriting easily). Run on sentences, lots of clarifying clauses, adjectives and adverbs. Purple prose, in other words. :)

  3. Great post. Have to admit I'm a slave to simile and metaphor. So hard to curb that. At least I try to make them character appropriate! But still.

  4. Great points here. I like using "fleece" instead of "North Face".

    "Just as a fifth grader wouldn't discuss post-feminist hegemony, a college professor wouldn't call his enemy 'stinkypants.'" So funny!

    When I first wrote, it was about me using big words. I got that out of my system fast!

  5. I used to be a chronic abuser of advanced vocabulary, using words just because I knew what they meant. Voice is a much trickier beast than I first thought, I have a character now that is "extremely" complicated, therefore her voice is hard to lock down. She grew up in the highest class, is now in the lowest, but intelligent. Also, because of her current status far too grown up for her age. Oh, and let's not forget the chip on her shoulder. Talk about a voice that's hard to lock down.

    I also have a problem overusing similes and metaphors. I think I've toned it down, but sometimes they still sneak in.

    This is an awesome series so far. LOVE!

  6. Wonderful post, Laurel! You provide so many great examples. "Advanced vocabulary can communicate some things you don't intend. It gives the impression that you, the writer, are insecure or a bit out of touch." So wise...

  7. Wow, I feel like I just had a whole week in a writing class. Thanks so much! Great advice. :)

  8. Boy, I need this post. I tend toward lush, which is what I love when I read, but then I have to tone it down. And down. And down. Really good advice!



  9. This is such a great post -- you've made some wonderful points here! :)

  10. Excellent collection of tips, Laurel. Nicely done!

  11. I have none of these problems. My writing is perfect in every way.

    My diction works just fine, thank you.


    - Eric

  12. I've always found alliteration fun, so I have to be careful that I don't do it without really thinking about it. I usually catch those when I read the draft out loud. Hopefully :)

  13. Great points. This is very helpful. I tend to over describe something. My CPs catch me every time. I'm working on that.

  14. Great explanations as usual. I might use questionable metaphors a tad too much. And vocabulary that's off. Yep. That's me. It's easier to catch once you know you're doing it.

  15. This is a really good post. It always interests me how I can read something I know, over and over, and not get it. Then someone rewords it, and bang. It hits me. Thanks. I tend to slip into many of those. Having you short-list them like that, really makes me want to take another look at my wip.

  16. JEM: I was about to read Marguerite Henry's Stormy to my daughter and realized the grandpa's dialect is unreadable! Reading aloud has made me more aware of what does and doesn't work.

    Jess: Diction is just one aspect, hence the series. I'll be tackling the other problems in future posts.

    Terri: me too. Even character appropriate ones can start to jar if there are too many per page. My CPs call me out on this a lot!

    Theresa: brand name dropping is one of my pet peeves, but it works for some people as a shorthand for their character's social class. I still struggle to keep my vocab in check, because, as you can see, I big words all the time every day--I work in academic publishing and have a professor spouse.

    Tina: I hear ya, hon. It has taken me years to finally get my character's voice. It didn't gel till my third draft when I had a better sense of how she'd react to plot elements.

  17. In honing my craft, I've struggled with the thesaurus. Using it helps create exact images for my scenes, but often the "synonym" isn't an even trade for the less pretty word I came up with in the first draft. Word nuances trip me up, and sometimes send my reader out to left field instead of drawing them home.

    Great post, Laurel!

  18. Shannon O.: Thanks. I'm very much inside this, having committed every one of these crimes at one time or another.

    Shannon M.: This is why I love blogging--I can teach without the public speaking. :-)

    Martina: I also prefer to read lush over sparse. This post comes from tackling revisions of what I thought was good work that now seems overwritten. Time away from the MS. is a huge help, I've found.

    Sandy: Thanks. It feels a little like I'm confessing at an Overwriters Anonymous meeting. I've been guilty of all this stuff.

    Simon: Just sharing what I've learned from my own mistakes, as you well know.

  19. Eric: There's a secret back entrance you can use to join our next Overwriters Anonymous meeting. Masks and wigs are available there.

    Jemi: If you like playing with sound, try using more assonance and consonance. They're more subtle and less likely to jar the reader.

    Christine: Lush descriptions in draft are fine--you have more material to work with. In revision it's a matter of trimming away all but the strongest images.

    Janet: I'm a terrible overwriter in draft but have become a ruthless reviser. I find that critiquing others' work helps me hugely in being able to see my own weaknesses.

    J.D.: I think sometimes it takes distance to see our own weaknesses. I've done everything I list here at some point.

    Nicole: Word nuances are tricky. One thought I had about that would be to google a new term you want to try and see how others use it in context.

    Honestly though, it's possible to make very ordinary words seem pretty when put in a line with musical cadence.

  20. Laurel, I don't have time to read through this and the previous post today, but it looks excellent. I'm going to link to it on my "resources for writers" list on my blog.

  21. I tend to use over explaining in dialogue. I was surprised the first time a cp told me this, but now I cringe every time I go back and read some of my older stuff. It's definitely a problem, but I'm working hard to correct it:)

    Great series so far!

  22. Great post, Laurel. Another that I will be adding to my writing board.