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Writer's Block: Overwriting

The hardest thing for any author to do is analyse their own material critically. So I understand why people become despondent and bemused when their well polished articles are rejected. Especially if they have worked really hard at their writing and taken as much trouble as they can to get subject, style, length, formatting and everything else right.

One major reason for rejection is that writers make the mistake of overwriting. What this means is that they allow the writing to become the subject of a piece, rather than the event, place or person it is meant to be about. When this happens, it prevents a natural reading rhythm developing and can be irritating or even downright annoying for potential readers.

As a reader, you will know when a piece is overwritten as you will find yourself wading through what feels like treacle, or stopping every now and again in order to make sense of the words on the page. Writers can pick up the fact that they have overwritten if they just look for examples of the following:

  • clichés
  • similes
  • metaphors
  • overuse of adjectives
  • obscure vocabulary

Clichés - personally, I don't think there is room for any of these as I see them as a sign of lazy writing. A cliché is often not as apt as the author's own words would be and it takes away any originality. If you know how a phrase will end from the first few words - don't write it down.

Similes - these are used to create an image of something, often an abstract idea that is hard to describe, by comparing it to something more familiar. Linking words used in similes include: "…like…", "…as….." or "as…….as…" For example: "busy as a bee" or "I slept like a log."

One may be acceptable, if it is appropriate, but reading two or more in an article can be tedious.

Metaphors are used to describe something as if it IS something else. Examples include; "the black sheep of the family" or "you are his rock." As with similes, they can be a useful device if used sparingly.

Too many adjectives take all the fun out of reading as people prefer to use their own imaginations. Worse are flowery adjectives that over-exaggerate or make it feel as if the author is showing off.

The art of good writing is to describe something in such a way that readers can see it, without the need for an adjective at all. So, when trying to describe something, think about why you feel it is old, heavy, broken, magical etc and describe it so that these traits are clear in your description.

For example, instead of saying a dress was "exquisitely" embroidered, describe the patterns, colours, size of stitches, materials, beading etc. and leave readers to visualize its exquisiteness.

Obscure vocabulary - many readers enjoy learning new words now and again, and as long as they are entirely appropriate and carefully set in context, I wouldn't want to suggest writers need to dumb down their work. But there is a limit to how many words no longer in normal use can be included in a straightforward non-fiction piece before they make readers feel stupid or alienated.

The joy of of non-fiction is that it explores the real world and brings it to readers; attention in new and refreshing ways. To achieve this, it is often best to use natural and simple language that will make your work accessible and enjoyable to read.

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