Friday, June 18

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, June 18, 2010 15 comments
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?

Wannabe Gracious

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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?

Any other pressing questions you'd like me to address in a future post? Send them to me at laurels (dot) leaves (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm out of town for the weekend and may not respond to comments till Sunday or Monday.


  1. Those are great words of advice, Laurel. I'm an overwriter myself. An agent even told me that my samples pages were "a little over done" so I need to watch it.

  2. "Recovering overwriter." I love that!

    "Hi, I'm Christine and I'm a recovering overwriter."

  3. I'd encourage the writer to try not to be so careful. I think overwriting comes from fear and, unfortunately, squeezes the life from a piece. If the writer can loosen up and let go, positive things can happen, mistakes and all.

  4. Great advice! I have nothing to add to your wise words, except that I'm now going to comb through my own writing :)

  5. Your advice was great. I've been in a similar situation and said, "You tend to [use too many 'to be' verbs] and I think your writing will be stronger if you can put more action into your lines. I've marked some places you did this on the first page and suggested some changes, just so you can see what I'm talking about." That way, not so much red but the issue got addressed.

    Have a great weekend!! Hope it's warm and nice, wherever you're going.

  6. This is wonderful advice. When I give my teen writing students feedback, I strive to find something (anything) good to praise, and sprinkle general and specific comments, depending on how long the piece is. I don't want to blow them out of the water and discourage them. It can be a tough balance. Often first revisions don't fix everything, but help us along the way. Great stuff, thanks for sharing!
    Blessings for your weekend,

  7. Good advice! I was just going to suggest doing a high-level critique to see how she handles it before letting loose.

    I enjoy these Q&A sessions. Thanks for posting them.

    Have a great weekend!

  8. What great advice! And thanks for the two book recommendations, I'll have to check those out.

  9. Great advice. Thanks...I think I'm on my way to recovery. I hope.
    Have a great weekend!

  10. Well, when I crit myself for overwriting I tend to use some pretty harsh vocab... but I'm much kinder to others. :)

  11. I used to overwrite big time, and then someone pointed that out to me. I'm better at cutting repetitive passages. I had to understand that it was okay to say something only once or twice (not on and on and on) and that less is definitely more. I still catch myself overwriting, but not to the extent that I once was.

    Wonderful advice. If I'm reading someone's passage, I would show the person where s/he's overwriting.

  12. Tactfully done - you've acknowledged what the writer wants to do while pointing out that they've been more thorough than they need to. Nice post.

  13. Aubrie: You were forturnate to get personalized feedback, even if it was bad news.

    Christine H: Should I run out and trademark this? I might have the perfect brand on which to build a media empire. *snort!!*

    Or maybe I need to just start a writerly t-shirt shop through cafepress to supplement my meager income. Hmm...

    Caroline: Fear is definitely a factor for some--worrying they won't sound "stylish" enough, or fearing the reader won't understand without repetition.

    JEM: The two books I mention are fantastic resources also.

    Amy: On first pass, patterns are the way to go. I no longer do line edits unless I'm asked to, or hired as a copy editor.

  14. Karen: for sure first revisions don't fix everything. In these critiquing relationships, one thing we do for each other is help with skill building. Once someone points out a weakness of mine and suggests a fix, I can store that shared knowledge in my toolbox for future use.

    Vicki: it's sometimes helpful in crit groups to have folks do a second pass--as long as they promise to not browbeat the writer for choosing to not make a suggested change.

    Susan: They're great additions to any writer's library.

    Christine D: It's a long process, and as I get back to drafting the new book, I'm sure I'll slip up plenty. :-) Just remember "I can always fix it later."

    Jemi: I suspect those we critique are as hard on themselves as we are, and some gentleness in the crit group goes a long way toward counteracting that harsh inner critic that can potentially become self-defeating.

    Medeia: The idea that smacked me hardest from _Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ is their formula 1+1 = 1/2. Meaning that overdone and repetitive descriptions or effects diminshes rather than increases how effective they are.

    DWC: I've learned the hard way (being mercilessly abused in writing workshop courses, for example) that the golden rule should be one's guide--give the kind of critique you'd like to receive.

  15. Laurel, these are really great advice. I used to be an overwriter. Now, I underwrite instead. But those are great critiquing tips.