Quick tip: Fresh writing vs. over-writing

If you’ve read even one book on writing, you’ve heard some contradictory advice. On one hand, you’re supposed to keep your language “fresh” and “original,” “rendering” it through the character’s point of view. On the other hand, you’re told to avoid “purple prose,” “over-writing,” and “heavy-handedness.”

Here’s a quick rule of thumb. You don’t need embellished language (or “rendered” language, as it’s often called) unless you’re capturing the description of something important, or capturing an emotional reaction.

The theory behind this is that in a novel, all human experience is processed through language. Familiar, unimportant, or straightforward actions, events, or details don’t require much of the POV character’s attention or thought, so the language used to capture them will be clear, specific, and unassuming.

On the other hand, complicated moments, often emotional moments in particular, require a lot of the POV character’s mental attention, and so are filtered through language to best capture the nature of the emotion or thing being described–and it’s there that language is used in a more poetic way, using metaphor, connotation, and interesting word choice to catch the important glimmers of an alien experience.

Over-writing is a normal phase every writer goes through, attempting to follow the “rule” to say everything in an interesting way; it exercises your writing muscle, but in the long run, you only need that muscle for certain kinds of moments.

As Amy Hempl once said, “Sometimes a flat-footed sentence is what serves, so you don’t get all writerly: ‘He opened the door.’ There, it’s open.”

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