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.