Tuesday, June 8

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 08, 2010 20 comments
Overwriting, according to Dictionary.com, is "to write in too elaborate, burdensome, diffuse, or prolix a style." This definition itself might qualify as overwritten, but it has provided some helpful hooks on which to hang my thoughts, as I explained in part 1 of the series.

In part 2, we explored diction issues that are a component of overwriting, particularly the abuse of advanced vocabulary, literary devices (sound devices, metaphor and simile, allusion) and dialect.

Today, we'll look at "sins of the tongue"--that is, types of overwriting that crop up in dialogue.

Softening phrases
Indirectness can be an effective way of showing a character’s non-confrontational nature or anxiety or indecision. Or it can simply be your anxiety appearing on the page. Take care to limit how many softening phrases you use.

Some common softeners to search for: maybe, might, seem, just, like, kind of, sort of, a bit, a little, tends to, as it were, you know, I think, I guess, I don't know.

Sample 1
He seemed kind of like, you know, maybe a bit of whiner.

Your best fix for this verbosity is to simply trim. Pick the phrase that best fits your voice.
He's kind of a whiner.
He seems whiny.

Or be direct:
He's a whiner.

Sample 2
Jared told Nate, “I think maybe we sort of like each other a little. I don’t know.”

Body language can stand in for some of the softening:
Jared shrugged. “We like each other a little.”

So can narrated action:
“We like each other,” Jared told Nate, but there was Lia dancing with the neckless linebacker.

Or try internal thought:
“We like each other,” Jared told Nate. At least in bio, where there were no neckless linebackers to hit on Lia.

The idea here is to mix techniques. What makes something overwritten is repetitious abuse of a single technique. Make sense?

Verbal tics
In an effort to make dialogue sound authentic, many beginning writers transcribe real conversations. Unfortunately, this makes for very annoying reading. Your goal should be verisimilitude--"like reality"--that reflects some of a speaker's peculiar turns of phrase without going overboard.

Some common tics to look out for: like, just, totally, literally, you know.

Sample (college student I overheard in elevator):
"Like, omigosh that dude is like, you know, so totally friggin bizarro freak-boy weird."

She has some colorful lingo here, but tends to gush and repeat herself. Some trims do the trick:
"That dude? Total freak boy."
"You see that friggin bizarre dude?"

Remember that "book speech" should be more efficient and compact than real speech. Use verbal tics like hot peppers in a sauce--just enough to add flavor. Too much, and it's inedible.

Evasive maneuvers
Perhaps you have a character who tries to evade truth telling by going on long-winded tangents. My MC does. The trick has been to represent this in a way that gets the idea across without being tiresome to read. I've found it's definitely a case where telling works better than showing.

Overwritten example (brace yourself, it's a doozy):

“Well, it was a total nightmare getting here,” I say. “We got into a holding pattern over Heathrow and I wanted to get out of my seat so bad. They cram you in there like a pack of Crayolas. I wish I could have taken my legs off and stowed them in the overhead bin. The guy in front of me had his head practically in my lap most of the way and there was this Amazon warrior princess sitting across the aisle from me who must work for the WNBA or something. She was huge. Her legs were sticking way out in the aisle and people kept tripping over her giant feet and falling on me. This one kid tripped and dropped a handful of superballs, and they bounced and ricocheted all over the place. If almost everyone hadn’t been asleep, it would have been total pandemonium. After we finally landed and got luggage, I had to go through customs all alone because the rest of my family are citizens. So I end up behind this bunch of drunk college students who danced around and sang ‘Born in the USA’ at the top of their lungs. Some of them got hauled off by security. I hope they got strip-searched, stupid goons. By the time I find my grandparents, I have a raging headache, but there was nowhere to get coffee. My grandfather is Mr. Fit and Spry, so he’s like, ‘let’s pop on the Tube, we’ll get to King’s Cross in no time.’ King’s Cross is the rail station with trains that go up to the northeast and Scotland. It was in Harry Potter. You know, platform 9 ¾? There’s a sign for platform 9 ¾, but they keep a luggage trolley in front of it so no crazy kids run into the wall and crack their heads open. Anyway, the tube ride is like an hour long, and this was New Year’s Day. So in addition to hung-over people who had been partying all night, the train’s packed with suburbanites heading to the city to hit the post-holiday sales. Of course, everyone’s totally annoyed to have to climb over our fat suitcases, but they’d never say anything. The British never do. They just sigh a lot, glare and generally look ticked off.”

“I wondered when you were going to pause for breath."

Dreadful, right? My reader certainly wouldn't have the patience to wade through Dani's random babbling about things with no significance to the plot or this scene.

I repaired this using narrative summary, then transition back to dialogue:

I launch into a long-winded story about my travel woes: the cramped flight, rowdy jerks in customs, endless rides on the Tube and train, my uncle’s crazy driving. How I wish I could've beamed straight to Ashmede like on Star Trek.

He laughs. “Don’t get your hopes up. No one could survive being atomically deconstructed. It’s a bogus concept altogether.”

The key is to discern what you most want to communicate. In my case, it wasn't the content of Dani's babbling that mattered, it was action of babbling itself that showed her anxiety and duplicity. Remember that not all telling is evil. It has a place in your toolbox.

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


  1. I kinda see what you're saying here, sort of. Like maybe you totally don't realize how totally full of filler the YA set mostly speak. If we only just added all of the unnecessary words some of the time or most of the time, it would be like way too unreadable. Probably.

  2. I use softening phrases too much. I'm working on it :)

    And I love the last example, I've really been wondering when it's ok to tell something and that makes perfect sense to me. Thanks Laurel!

  3. Great examples! Telling does have its place when used correctly.

    And getting that "like reality" dialogue down can be tricky. Great suggestions as always!

  4. Excellent lesson, Laurel! This is an area I need to be conscious of when I write, or I slip right into it. I bookmarked and printed this one (and the last two). Thanks, Laurel! :-)

  5. Terrific post. I found you by way of Simon Larter (Writing Again on Twitter). When I look at some of my old writing now, my red pen is much more brutal than it used to be. That pen is getting sharper, thanks to folks like you.

  6. I see you're preparing to write a book on writing one day! I'm perplexed by the whole overwriting phenom. I have a drastic underwriting problem, I'm too lean. I always have to go back and add more words. Usually quite a lot.

  7. Dialogue is one of the few places that I don't get tripped up. I may have a future in screenplays :) Awesome post, as always. It was, like, so...I don't know, informative. One day I want to be a superhero like you.

  8. I'm always cutting those pesky middle words. Great post!

  9. Theresa, you like, totally crack me up. I'm around older teens a lot working on a college campus. They don't really outgrow the vapid filler language till grad school, then it's egghead show-off time.

    You all are being way too nice about my overwritten babble fest from my first draft! Now can you see how I cut a 102K manuscript to 66K? I've had to overcome a serious babbling handicap.

    Anyone have theories about Elle's question--what makes one person an overwriter and another an underwriter?

    I'm often pretty quiet in real life, especially compared to my extraverted spouse and siblings--but there's incessant jabber in my head that comes out when I write. Maybe that's it?

    I don't know about writing on writing...but it would be cool to attend to some conferences for free by becoming a speaker.

  10. Great post, Laurel! I shall pimp it on your behalf on Twitter.

    You know me, though: Mr. Underwriter. Still, I'm as capable as the next writer of overwriting, if I'm not clear on what my story's doing. I'll surely keep your tips in mind for those times. :)

  11. I way overuse the softeners. I need to trim down on that! Thanks for the tips, Laurel!

  12. I definitely overuse softeners, and need to cut down on them. Thank you for this post. These advice are very useful!

  13. I loved the example of when to tell. This is something I need to work on.

  14. Good points to remember. Thanks for writing this informative post.

  15. My first draft is littered with softening phrases 'seemed like', 'felt like', 'a little'... Thankfully we always get to do a rewrite!

  16. Great! All that helps towards having snappy dialogue!

  17. Simon makes a great point here--that overwriting often happens when we don't yet know what's important to the story and can't yet discern what we most want to communicate.

    Don't beat yourself up, friends, if you make these mistakes in draft.

    My personal mantra for drafting is

    I also realize now that softening phrases can show up anywhere, even in descriptions and action scenes. If you're prone to using them, be alert to the fact they're likely sprinkled all through your work, so be sure to add "trim softeners" to your checklist for revision.

  18. Great post. I always have a problem with trying to transcribe real conversations. Thanks for the tips!

  19. Oh, wow! This is great. I'm linking this up to my Cool Links Friday, especially since I've already linked the first two parts. This is the best one yet!

  20. I often overwrite in my first draft and then go back and cut, trying to make it more direct. It's a great reminder, thanks!