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February 16, 2010 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – Don’t Overwrite … Less is More

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction”. Take your seats, please class, I need your full attention, and I mean right now. I have a very important tea and crumpets date with Ms. Flanders in just ten minutes, so stop with the flirting and sophomoric shenanigans, turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, boot up your monitors, straighten your drawers, plop your butts in your seats and be quiet. I’m in no mood for your typical silliness. Plus if you’re good I have some fresh baked cookies for you all after class, courtesy of Ms. Flanders.

That’s much better. Ahem. Today I’d like to discuss the issue of overwriting.

Overwriting is often a sign of insecurity in an author. Particularly with novice authors, you want to make sure you are getting your very important points across, be certain your characters’ emotions are being felt fully, and your imagery is vivid and impressive. So you tend to overwrite. Problem is, the prose gets too lengthy, redundant, and laden with excess verbiage that lessens the impact of your story. The old saying goes, “Less is more,” and it applies to us as writers as well, hmm?

As is my usual style and want, I shall tutor by example. Here is a short passage in which I am overwriting to impress.


John was so mad. He was enraged. He was livid, with his forehead veins bulging deep, dark red and his eyes so menacingly evil looking he could have been mistaken for the Devil. He had to be very, very careful, though. One wrong move, just the tiniest slip, the least bit of err in his next move could very well prove to be his demise. He could be destroyed, ruined, everything lost if he miscalculated even just a little. He edged closer to the sleeping giant with very slow, measured, extremely soft steps. He got almost close enough to be able to reach for the sword, and stopped in a heart-stopping, horrifying flash of heightened terror as the giant stirred and let out a long, slow, deep, guttural groan. Then it started snoring again.

John was madder than hell. He would have his long awaited for and much deserved revenge. Sweet, sweet, revenge, the sweetest ever, the kind that makes chancing the sacrificing of your own life so very worth it. He took another slow, measured, very soft step closer, and then with his heart beating in his chest like it would burst out and blow up at any second, made his swift move.


Impressed? Me either. I’m like, okay, whatever … John’s mad, he’s gotta get even with this evil giant, he’s scared but doing the brave thing. I get that. You don’t need to pound it into my head with such blatant, overly glorified writing. Here’s the same passage with all the fat cut out, streamlined into a more Spartan and direct style, without losing any story.


John was livid. His forehead veins were bulging and his eyes menacing. He had to be careful. One wrong move, the tiniest slip, could get him killed. He edged closer to the sleeping giant with slow, measured steps. Almost close enough to reach for the sword, he stopped in terror as the giant stirred and let out a long, guttural groan, then started snoring again.

He would have his long awaited, sweet revenge. Revenge worth risking your life over. He took another step. With his heart pounding, he made his move.


Isn’t that much better, a more powerful read? And what did we miss, anything? No. The whole story is there, delivered with fewer words, eliminating repitition, excess adverbs and adjectives, cutting the fat out and getting down to the basic nouns and verbs needed to convey the storyline.

Okay, class dismissed, as usual leave your comments on my desk, and I must say . Wow! You’re all still here … Gold stars for everyone, and please help yourself to these still warm fresh baked cookies Ms. Flanders was kind enough to bake for you all.

Ooops, my phone. “Yes, yes, Ms. Flanders, I’m coming, be right with you – and I just have to tell you how wonderful my class behaved today. I think I’ll start making it a habit of serving your baked goods at the end.”

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Leave a Comment
  1. tashabud / Feb 16 2010 5:54 am

    Marvin, please do make a habbit of serving those freshly baked cookies after each class. I was bad and inconsiderate. But they’re very yummy, I couldn’t help myself from eating four. Please extend my thanks to Ms. Flanders.

    I do like your style of writing–straight to the point, yet not devoid or lacking of power, beauty, and artistry. Thanks for the instructions. Most helpful to this novice writer.


  2. Cactus Annie / Feb 16 2010 7:04 am

    Excellent class, and yes – keep serving the cookies, and give Ms.Flanders my thanks! 😉

  3. Barbra Kelser / Feb 16 2010 7:27 am

    Great lesson in writing Prof Old Silly! I’m not an author but the second example was MUCH more direct and powerful ., I can see where overwriting lessens the impact.

    Oh – and yes – the cookies help, keep it up. 😉

  4. Elizabeth Spann Craig / Feb 16 2010 7:38 am

    Good one! Tweeting it…

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Terry Odell / Feb 16 2010 8:03 am

    Less is always more (although my editor would have slammed the “to be” verbs in there, and highlighted the POV issues. But the lesson is still there — give your readers credit for brains.

    • theoldsilly / Feb 16 2010 8:09 am

      “He had to be careful” ?? Is that too much use of “to be”? One? And what POV issues? I’m just curious … i wrote it all in John’s POV in 3rd person, omniscient narrative. Unless I’m not seeing something you saw. Another example of why even an editor has to use another editor to look over his/her work? lol.

  6. Terry Odell / Feb 16 2010 8:18 am

    LOL — my former agent would circle every single “was” to call them to my attention. And I’m a deep POV person, not omniscient, so I don’t write what a character can’t see or know for himself. Not that you’re wrong; a lot has to do with the tone, but in an exciting scene, I think you should be able to show rather than tell “he was livid” for example. And John can’t see his veins bulging — again that’s my writing preference, to leave the author/narrator outside the work wherever possible. And “were bulging” is another one my agent would have glommed onto. And then, there’s the quick hop to 2nd person in the second paragraph. Not wrong, because it’s in John’s head, but a bit of a hiccup for me.
    But I can be overly picky, especially when I’m stressed out about moving in 2 weeks and would rather procrastinate, the topic my guest blogger is addressing over at my blog today!

    • theoldsilly / Feb 16 2010 9:19 am

      Oh I see. Good “picky” points. In a novel I would take more care to “show” John’s lividity (lol) – but this was a short tutorial post on cutting the fat out of writing, not a lesson on POV or show and tell. And yes, I do prefer omniscient narrative for the main character, but mostly use limited narrative for supporting characters when writing a book.

  7. Crystal Clear Proofing / Feb 16 2010 8:28 am

    EXCELLENT example on overly verbose writing vs. getting to the point! Yes, the first was okay; however, an entire book written in such a manner would quickly cause me to think: “Oh c’mon already!” Very rarely do I even finish a book written like your first example. Keeping things moving is essential.
    (I did not notice any *to be* or POV issues…)

    • theoldsilly / Feb 16 2010 9:20 am

      Thanks Crystal – Terry had me worried there! 😉

  8. Stanley Berber / Feb 16 2010 9:11 am

    Way over my head, the technical stuff, but I DID like the second version better – and the cookies were worth the visit alone! 😉

  9. Helen Ginger / Feb 16 2010 10:06 am

    Good cookies. What? No milk to dip them in?

    Always good tutorials here. Thanks Marvin.

    Straight From Hel

  10. quirkyloon / Feb 16 2010 10:35 am

    Yes, I’m guttural groaning for more cookies!



    And yes I know cookies, cookies, cookies start with “C.”

  11. yvonne lewis / Feb 16 2010 10:36 am

    Excellent lesson as always, you learn something new everyday.


  12. Ron Berry / Feb 16 2010 11:48 am

    What is omniscient writing anyway? I just write so it reads well.

    Good points but let’s have some chocolate chip cookies without the nuts, since they are hard on my lack of teeth.

  13. Elspeth Antonelli / Feb 16 2010 12:05 pm

    I am a firm believer in the less is more adage. Unfortunately, this leads to rather lean manuscripts which I then have to beef up. Learning where to put in more layers and where to leave it lean is a tricky process. I’m improving.

  14. tdryden1 / Feb 16 2010 12:19 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful … I know this applys to me. hahaha

  15. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Feb 16 2010 1:44 pm

    Glad less is more! I’m not overly descriptive anyway, and my publisher had me hack out even more, so what’s left is pretty bare bones. But you’re right – it reads better and faster.

  16. AmyLK / Feb 16 2010 2:10 pm

    There is no overwriting when writing grants with page limits. Now my blog, that’s a different story. 😉

  17. Patricia Stoltey / Feb 16 2010 4:52 pm

    What the heck. Just because I’m a little late, I don’t get cookies? Humph!

    • theoldsilly / Feb 16 2010 4:56 pm

      LOL, THAT’ll teach ya to get to class on time! 😉

  18. ReformingGeek / Feb 16 2010 5:28 pm

    I am hungry. My stomach is growling waking up Cat. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. As I sat through your lecture today, all I could think about was cookies, yummy cookies. Cookies that make my mouth water.


    I’m hungry. My growling stomach woke up Cat. I made it through your lecture thinking only of mouth-watering cookies. Yum!

    Thanks, Marvin.

  19. Leigh Russell / Feb 16 2010 5:36 pm

    You are absolutely, totally and completely in the right and have made your point and expressed yourself with astonishing and astounding accuracy. There is nothing more tedious and dull, and less interesting, than endless and interminable reiteration, going over and over the same points.
    Leigh Russell (author of crime thrillers)

  20. M.J. Nicholls / Feb 16 2010 5:56 pm

    Erm, what they said.

    Overwriting is most certainly a cyclonically impervious insubstantiation upon our majestically marvellous manuscripts.



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