Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Overwritten Prose

Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.

Sometimes, yes, good writing is complex and elaborate and highly filigreed, filled with detail and running rhythms and rhymes and heaven knows what else. But most of the time, good writing is elegant and says only as much as it needs to say.

Suppose, for example, Arthur Author wants to say that one of his characters, Jack, is walking across the room to pick up a pen. Arthur sits down to his iBook and types:

Jack walked across the room and picked up a pen.

But perhaps Arthur feels that's boring, too plain and not literary. And he wants to put in Jack's emotion during the scene. So he types some more:

Jack walked angrily across the room, snatching up the pen in his fist.

"That's much better," Arthur thinks. "But what's this room? I haven't said a word about it yet." More typing:

Jack walked angrily across the dark blue carpeted floor of the sunlit library, glaring at the shelves of well-worn books that lined the walls as he snatched up the antique gold fountain pen from the walnut secretary that had been in his family for generations.

"That's brilliant," Arthur says. "If I could work a simile into this, it would be perfect."

Arthur Author has just clogged up a perfectly good sentence by overwriting it with detail that isn't part of the essential thought. The reader, when she hits this sentence, will have no idea at all what the important information is: Jack walked across the room and picked up a pen. There is too much going on all at once in Arthur's final version. The sense of the sentence has been buried under an avalanche of adjectives, adverbs and cliches. Most of what Arthur has written is beside the point.

Let's try a different example, the opening paragraphs of a short story.

Opening Paragraphs, Version One:

The low hills lying in rows across the dry, narrow valley of the Ebro were long and dirty off-white tinged with streaks of brownish yellow, like the exposed teeth of an old grinning plowhorse. This side of the dusty valley was hot as an oven; there was no relieving shade and no sheltering trees and the overheated adobe station was forever trapped between two sharp running lines of heat-shimmering train rails in the blistering afternoon sun. Close against the side of the lonely station there was the warm, choking shadow of the claustrophobic building and a still curtain, made of vibrantly-colored strings of brightly-painted bamboo beads, hung slantingly across the open door into the dark, mysterious bar, to keep out unwanted buzzing flies. The tall, athletic American in his light suit and hat and the beautiful, blonde girl with him sat at a small rickety table in the hot shade, outside the isolated building. It was very hot, like a desert, and the express from Barcelona would come chugging down the rails in forty minutes. It stopped briefly at this lonely junction for a spare two minutes and went to Madrid.

'What should we drink?' the girl asked quietly, wiping her glowing face with the back of one delicate hand. She had taken off her straw hat and put it on the round, white-painted table.

'It's pretty hot,' the man said tiredly.

Huh? How about this instead:

Opening Paragraphs, Version Two:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

'What should we drink?' the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.

'It's pretty hot,' the man said.

See the difference? Version Two is in fact the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's amazing short story, "Hills Like White Elephants." Version One is an immensely overwritten form of it. If you happen to prefer Version One of this, you need to sit down and pay attention.

Version One is purple prose, though I often see stuff that's a great deal worse than this, written in all seriousness. Nobody should write this way. It's simply too much. Every noun has a modifying adjective, every verb has an adverb, and every description has a bad simile. Too much.

Overwritten writing usually attempts to carry too much information, and becomes indistinct. If every noun or verb in a sentence is supposed to carry descriptive data (that is, has an adjective or adverb that is supposed to mean something important to the reader), it becomes difficult to figure out what's actually the subject of the sentence, what the point of the writing is. This is why we're told to strike out adverbs and excess adjectives: a sentence should, ideally, be about A Single Thing, and you should aim the reader at that one thing only. If you want to say more than one thing, or have a complex idea to get across, it is preferable to break your thoughts into more than one sentence, with one thought per sentence. You cannot say everything at once, and it's not polite to talk with your mouth full, anyway.

So my advice is simple: write directly, and just tell the story. Don't be fooled into thinking that you have to put onto paper something that looks like literature, or that you have to reach for grandiloquence with every sentence. You don't. Elegance is eloquence. Strive for clarity and know what you're writing about.


  1. That idea of writing in a writerly way is a problem. I do see it in the work of beginning writers, but even personally, after several years of writing, I find that I sometimes fall into this writerly voice. I end up channeling John Updike, or William Faulkner, and it can last for dozens of pages before I realize it. I have to trust that this sort of thing will get cleaned up in my revisions.

    As for your examples, I do like the bit about snatching up the pen. That's what I've been focusing on lately, using verbs that reveal emotion, along with action. I think individual sentences--while still having focus--can say more than one thing. I try to make them do double duty when I can.

  2. Very good post, I like the progression in your examples.

    How about adding this to the mix:

    Jack walked past the sword and picked up the pen, opting for the mightier weapon.

    I like to use this example of overwritten prose vs. simplicity:

    A) I extend to you an informal expression of welcome.

    B) Hi.

  3. Great post!

    I've always written in a way that is easy for the reader to understand....if I confuse my reader...they'll either misunderstand the point I'm trying to make or they'll put my book down.

  4. Amen.

    And if you must do that type of writing to get your story out there's nothing wrong with it, but be prepared to make draft 2 bleed.

    I tend to overwrite in the my first draft. Learning to cut has been a long and valuble process.

    Draft 1: 101k
    Current draft: 82k

    More isn't always better. Isn't the rule of thumb draft 2 = draft 1 - 15%?

  5. Erin,

    I've heard -10% (a la Stephen King in ON WRITING) but I think 15% is a good number, too. I'm the the middle of re-writing 120k down to 80k.

  6. Rick,

    Yes! I read On Writing as well. I know I heard the -15% somewhere, but I can't cite my source. Hehe.

    And good luck on your chainsawing.

  7. Davin: You're right about making sentences do double-duty, but that's different than trying to describe eight things at once. Word choice ("snatching" versus "picking up") is important and when a more appropriate verb comes along, we ought certainly to use it! "Snatching" is better than "angrily seized" or similar awful stuff.

    Rick: Felicitations! I sincerely thank you in a most heartfelt manner for so quickly adding your cogent thoughts to this hopefully enlightening conversation, like a shining ray of the sun's clarifying light breaking forth upon the darkest of stormy nights.

    Stephanie: Yes, that's it. Too much misunderstanding us, and they will put the book down.

    Erin: Isn't the rule of thumb draft 2 = draft 1 - 15%?

    That might be a good thing to shoot for, but curiously, my drafts go the other way. Draft 1 was 72k words. My current draft (number seven or eight; I forget which) is closer to 90k. I tend to sketch in ideas at first and flesh them out later, or add new scenes in subsequent drafts and find things to expand. But even while my mss grow in length, I'm still cutting things like mad. In the last month I've deleted close to 10k words but the novel remains about the same length overall. Weird.

    And beside the point, whis is that I still find myself overwriting some passages initially and hacking them to bits when I edit.

  8. It's not polite to talk with your mouth full!!!! I must write it on a post-it and put it in front of me. What a great way to make yourself notice the padding and excessive verbage. Love it.

  9. I did the opposite. I finished my story and it was really just an outline. It was then my MC started to reflect – silently! (duh) Now I’m cutting the garbage and fearing I’ll wind up with flash fiction when it’s done.

    I think it was John Gardner that said that he has never seen anyone stroll, amble and saunter. They walk.

    ...and being a regular reader of this blog, I knew what a simile was!

  10. Charlie, That's the way I tend to write as well. I feel like I start with the barebones story and keep adding more and more flesh. I think it's just the way we work. On a few occasions, I've found myself having to cut down a lot. It doesn't make for better or worse writing, but I do think that it creates a different flavor.

  11. I think there's a happy medium between spartan simplicity and purple prose. (I wish there were a color for very underwritten things, too, because that would be fun.)

    Personally, I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. Few adjectives, limited adverbs, and frankly, the reader is lucky if there is more than a cursory description of anything. I tend to add 100s of words in the later drafts. But, then again, whenever one is adding words, one must always be on the lookout for overdoing it.

  12. "I wish there were a color for very underwritten things, too, because that would be fun."

    How about transparent? It's not a color, but it's a fitting descriptor.

  13. F.P.: I agree that every writer needs to find their individual voice and style, but saying that it's okay to write awful prose isn't helping. I stand by my statement that nobody should write like that.

    As an aside, I think you're missing the point of Hemingway's use of man/girl. "Hills Like White Elephants" is about a patronizing man who is talking a woman into having an abortion she doesn't want. He treats her like a child and while she doesn't want their relationship to change during this crisis, you can see that it's already falling apart.

    I chose Hemingway for this post not as the Ultimate Example of the Best Prose, but because his writing is spare and concise and it seemed like it would provide the greatest contrast when placed side-by-side with what I consider overwritten prose. And also, I'm a fan.

    1. So if you want communicate to the reader that the heat made the man tired how do you do that?

      'It's pretty hot,' the man said tiredly.


      'It's pretty hot,'. The heat made the man tired.

      Or perhaps it is not good writing to tell the reader tgat the heat made the man tired?

      I am in complete agreement with F.P.

  14. "Strive for clarity." Best sentence in the post.

    Thanks for the nugget!


  15. F.P.- I understand your reservations against the use of an absolute (never), and I think Scott would agree that there are a few very limited times that such overwriting would be appropriate:

    1) As a learning example, as it was used in the post.

    2) As satire or humor.

    However, it seem to me that you overlooked the hyperbole in example 1: "Every noun has a modifying adjective, every verb has an adverb, and every description has a bad simile."

    The different tools in the toolbox each have their time and place. Some writers seem to think that the time is all the time and the place is everywhere.

    Tiredly. To show more depth of character, and a greater sense of the man's physical condition, he could do something that shows us he's tired.

    "It's hot," he said, stifling a yawn.

    And if I may be so bold as to point out something about Mr. Hemingway's writing: the first paragraph is very passive, with more telling than showing. Does that make it bad? No, it does not. If the entire story were passive, that could be a problem.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Declaring that purple prose is appropriate when explaining that purple prose is not appropriate (point number one) is really a vacuous point to make.

      Purple prose is appropriate in far more contexts than just satire. You also haven't properly understood F.P.'s point. He explained that he prefers a happy medium between the two extremes.

      I do, however, completely agree that showing is better than telling.

  16. F.P.: who decides what "awful prose" is? When I'm writing the post, I do. That's what's so neat about having a regular column about writing: I get to state my opinion, and if something strikes me as awful, I call it the way I see it. Life is good that way. If you're me.

    I'm going to stay away from the discussion of Hemingway as a sexist, because it's not the point of this post and, frankly, I don't wish to deconstruct him or other writers from a sociopolitical vantage in which they didn't exist. It tells us about us, not about them. And again, beside the point.

    Which is: if you modify every noun and verb in a sentence such that the point--the accuracy, as you say--of the sentence is lost, your sentence is overwritten. And that is a bad thing, unless your wish is to baffle readers. I'm trying to warn people away from that extreme, not push them as far as possible toward spartan prose.

    1. Yes, the extreme of modifying everything in a sentence with adjectives and adverbs is over the top but the other extreme also makes for bad story telling. Story telling is not technical manual writing.

      And, by the way, you are far too defensive. You have a right to your opinion. I don't think F.P. ever indicated otherwise. But F.P. and I also have a right to disagree with you, even if this is your regular column.

  17. I've read so many blogs on this subject. Thanks for finally expounding on the principles behind it.

  18. Sorry, I seem to have walked in on something here *ducking and backing out quietly* I’ll just pop back in later.

  19. jbchicoine, hope you're not scared away. We do appreciate your comment, and I'm glad you got something out of Scott's post. Every once in awhile, we have some enthusiastic discussion, which I think is a great thing. But, there's still room for other comments as well.

    F. P. This idea of accuracy has come up before and I'm in total agreement. Not until after I read Proust did I understand this, but writing accurately, and taking the time to do that, can really make for some powerful writing. Proust took his time. I'd argue that Tolstoy wrote accurately AND concisely, and for me personally, I like that more. But, both writers are fun for me to read.

    I've taught a couple of beginning writing courses where I cover details and descriptions. One of the exercises I assign is to have people describe something far more thoroughly than they normally would. Take 5 pages to describe a house, for example. When people hit the limit of their comfort zone, they temporarily run out of things to say, then, suddenly, they see more. The image they have in their mind is richer, and often they have more to choose from when they then decide which key details they want to include. Accuracy is something that is often lost, especially when writers are afraid of taking up too much of a reader's time, but I think the best writers still manage to keep it.

  20. As I've struggled through this latest revision stage, I've realized one thing: saying things with the least amount of words is often better than saying things with a great amount of words. Sometimes, a simple sentence is enough. Elaborate, writerly sentences are great . . . but not when the entire book is filled with them and the reader is lost amid so many wonderful words.

    Personally, give me a simple sentence, straight to the point. If Jack is angry, I'm sure I probably picked up on that at some point either before or after he walked across the room and picked up the pen.

    Excellent post and discussion. My brain hurts after reading all the comments.


  21. David,
    Don’t worry, I’m not scared. I’m actually more intrigued than anything—happy to observe from the sidelines. I love reading such varying points of view and “enthusiastic discussion”. I simply haven’t enough experience to add my two cents worth, but I love reading everyone else’s.

  22. "It was a dark and stormy night" is a fine phrase, I've always thought. Direct and to the point, and begins to set the scene. It's the paragraph that follows it in the original that's not so great.

    There is room for fancy language. I love writers who play word games for the sheer joy of it; it's one of the most amazing things possible with language. Shakespeare and Nabokov did wonderful things with puns and double-meaning and the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases. But that's a different thing, as is detailed description or sheer density of prose. And I'm not talking about purple prose per se, just prose that is faux writerly and filled with excess that slows down and confuses the meaning of the passage.

    This post:


    sort of gets at it. Clearly, my failure here was in not making my examples of overwritten prose bad enough.

  23. I've probably missed out on a great discussion here today, but I don't have much time to go through it all. I trust it's enlightening!

    Scott, this is a great post. Purple prose is annoying and can drag a story down faster than anything else. I used to be the queen of purple prose, and it still creeps in every once in a while. Okay, more often than not. However, the more I write the more I'm seeing the importance of treating description like that saffron we talked about before. Just a touch. Reader's imaginations are brilliant and vivid - no need to slow them down with unnecessary fluff.

  24. F.P.: The inspiration (such as it is) for this post came when I read a sample first chapter for a real novel by a beginning writer. It was pretty badly written in a way I can't even (thankfully) fake. I didn't want to use that actual piece of writing because it wouldn't have been nice. So I looked on Project Gutenberg for something in the way of overwriting. You'd think it would be easy to find something, but after about half an hour I just gave up and had the idea to throw purple onto Hemingway's beige. The "Jack got his pen" example was added at the last minute.

    You're right that it's hard to say what's appropriate or excessive when something is taken out of context, and Davin and others have pointed out that sometimes hyperbolic prose works for the piece. There are sentences in my own work that, if the whole book was written that way, it would be unreadable but in context they seem to add to the writing.

    My warning here is against entire books being written that way. Maybe if I have time, I'll find some real-world examples of overwriting. And, of course, things I consider fine will be too much for others. But as I said, if it's my post, I get to be judge. Such power! Bwahahaha!

  25. I'm interested by this idea of accuracy, as it applies to fiction. Leaving aside factual details and historical accuracy (the sun rising in the east, a colt .45 -- the weapon or the beverage -- not existing in Tudor England), what _is_ accuracy in fiction? The whole concept of accuracy requires some external-to-itself frame of reference, and if the story and its details are all made up, isn't the whole idea of "external" pretty foggy?

    I imagine a scene set in a barn, and I can see, hear, and smell a hundred different details. It would be "accurate" if I described them all as I imagine them, but if I don't, who's to know? If I don't, does it matter?

    It seems to me that what is "necessary," what is "consistent," and what is "effective" in the sense of overall story are all more valuable concepts in judging writing than is accuracy.

  26. Jabez,
    I'll try not to speak for F. P. about accuracy, but what I mean when I talk about accuracy is that there are certain ideas, emotions and details, that writers often try to convey. But, what can happen sometimes is that, instead of taking a hundred words to convey what they originally meant to say, some writers will take short cuts, just to get it over with. Yes, in the end, it is all created by us, meant to serve the story, but what I mean by accuracy is what happens during that gap between imagination and the written word. This will be a quick example, that probably won't be completely effective, but it's what I got. I'm sitting here on the couch looking at four potted plants sitting on the mantle. I could say, "There are four potted plants sitting on the mantle" or I could say, "There are four potted plants spaced evenly on the mantle, two larger ones near the center, and two smaller ones on each end." The latter description takes a lot more effort to write, effort that I think a lot of writers won't bother to make. Whether or not it serves the rest of the story depends on the rest of the story, but I'd argue that, even if the latter description better-served the story, a lot of writers still wouldn't bother to write all of that. Marcel Proust spends pages and pages describing a walk in the country or the taste of a madeleine. It may seem overdone, but it ends up really capturing the narrator's sensuality and personality, probably the most important part of the book.

  27. Hello, just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed reading your posts. Thank you for sharing ! Best wishes

  28. Davin,

    Thanks for your response. I agree with everything you say; I just think "accuracy" is not quite the right word for it. Ironically, because "accurate" is too short-hand; it doesn't provide enough detail into the concept, which I agree with you is whether one has included enough details, or the right details, to serve the needs of his/her story.

    But what you're talking about -- or something akin to it -- is something I'm definitely cognizant of. I come from a scientific background too, and when I first started writing, I felt a need to use detail to set the scene instead of to serve the story.

    For example: My character comes to a house -- I describe what the house looks like. (number of stories, color, distinguishing characteristics, etc.) He goes inside. I describe what the room he enters looks like (furniture, etc.) I was trying to use detail to set my character in his setting instead of to propel the story. I think this came from my holdover structured way of looking at things and writing, in part what I learned in the lab (describe initial conditions, describe process, describe results).

    It took a little while to realize that a house is a house is a house, unless it matters what the house is like. And if it does, figure out how and why, and include the details that convey that. I'm still learning, of course.

  29. I'm late commenting Scott, but I had to acknowledge what a great post this is. Your examples are dead-on. The bad part is that too many times I have found (in published books no less) myself cruising past whole sections because I got bored with the description. Although I love The Lord Of The Rings, I'll be the first to admit that Tolkien was terrible at this. Anyway, nice job and thanks for working through this.

  30. This is a prime example of why The Literary Lab is the best source for new writers. I love this blog.

    I love reading the comments and I’m absorbing these viewpoints. My feeling is that moderation is the key. I agree with Scott in that too much purple prose would bore me. Half-way through the example he showed, I bailed and started the next paragraph. I also agree with F.P. in that descriptive and flowery prose has its place. I want to feel what the author feels and today’s streamlined attitude limits this. I would not want to read Fun with Dick and Jane for 80,000 words. And I agree with Davin and his appreciation of accuracy. I’m sure there are tales that are intentionally vague and designed to invoke emotions instead, much like music, but aside from them, precision is essential. (If anyone has any examples of this, let me know. ty)

    Scott, that badly opening chapter wasn’t mine, was it?

  31. Charlie: No, I wasn't talking about your writing, or anyone else's here.

    I'd also like to point out that there is an important difference between dense prose and overwritten prose. Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that's not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy and just not good.

  32. Thanks, Scott, for this wonderful post. I really need lessons like this (and the equally helpful comments) at this particular point in my writing process, as I am currently trying to revise my debut novel, which began life as, wait for it, 290k words in length. Luckily, I've managed to trim it to 196k, but it still has a long road ahead... given that my preferred wc is around 120k. I realize that even THAT is too long for most agents and editors these days, but any more cutting and I fear the story will disappear. Regardless, I think that overwriting is a big problem for me... how ironic that Hemingway is my favorite author. From now on, when in doubt, I should think "What would Hemingway do?" and then, of course, disregard the heavy drinking and suicide and all.


    P.S. One interesting note, though, is that while I can see the merit in Hemingway's pared-down version, I never realized before how much he relied on the hateful "to be" verbs... what would a modern agent say about that?

  33. Laura: Yeah, Hemingway used the dreaded "[noun] was [adjective]" construction a lot. I don't mind it. I assume he'd be told that he was a bad writer nowadays. Certainly his prose style had its own rhythm to it that can strike a reader as cold and distant when first encountered. But after a page or two, I think, it's marvelous stuff. So clear and honest. Hemingway knew what he waned to say, knew what he saw around him, and didn't want anything to get in the way of his reader seeing what he'd seen. I love his prose. Though I write nothing like him, really.

  34. Really good post. I love your examples too. I have trouble with overwriting.

    That is why yesterday I found myself editing as I was writing my FIRST draft. That is something that should not be done. But there I was revising the sentences I had just written. YIKES!

    And using the beautiful action verbs. Love that Jack walked angrily. And I love how you show Arthur Author's overwriting. Cool name too. :)

  35. I am always dismayed by my tendency to write very clean, short, cut-to-the-chase sentences. I keep wishing I could be more of a word artist, but it just doesn't work for me. Now I have read this, I don't feel so bad about it anymore.

  36. As my writing developed, I was always afraid I was "losing my touch" because everyone always (exceedingly) complimented me on my imagery but I was becoming more and more Laconic. Now I look back at some of my work from middle- and high-school and nearly gag from embarrassment at how overwrought it all was.

    The trick is just common sense. If it sounds "complex" to you when you wrote it and you have to study it for a second, a reader will certainly lose patience with it.

  37. I'm in complete agreement with you. I'm also a big fan of poetic prose. I don't want the entire novel to be composed of poetic prose but rather have it artfully placed. This enhances the emotional impact of story telling.

  38. F. P. I only have two questions.
    1. Is Sherlock Holmes purple prose? (because I'm a fan) and
    2. Would you consider this overwritten? It's a short story I wrote for my english teacher once, and probably the best I'll ever write.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.