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.”

2 Comments on “Quick tip: Fresh writing vs. over-writing”

  1. Nice. And so true.

    It’s interesting that novels are going to a more “just the facts” newspaper style. It’s not really surprising though — shorter attention spans and a general move towards “fast” reads means that you have to lose word count somewhere.

    This is nothing new. Even in the 80s, Charles Dickens was already seen as wordy by many. The changes today are only a matter of degree.

    I like though how you’ve given a good rule of thumb about when to “pull out the big guns” and when to let the story just tell itself.


    Graham Strong
    on Mar 10th, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  2. Graham, so glad you found this helpful. Prose has been getting shorter since Hemingway, it seems–but we still have gems like Cormac McCarthy, who finds a way to walk a line between baroque beauty and a lean plot. The language may change with the times, but it is still our raw material to use however suits our vision. Aside from basic guidelines that I offer here, writing is still an art–thank goodness–that allows a little more room for beauty than newspaper writing. If we follow the guidelines most of the time, we get to break them beautifully once in a while.

    Sarah Cypher
    on Mar 10th, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

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