Common Writing 'Mistakes' - Part 3: Overwriting

This is the final part of our series on common mistakes (click to read part one and two) and today we’re looking at overwriting.

What goes wrong?

Overwriting can come in many forms but at its heart it can be summed up as writing too much. When the writing is particularly elaborate, it’s sometimes called purple or flowery prose. The fact is, less is often more.

Some examples of overwriting:

  • Describing something in too much detail: The woman was taller than average and wore stylish emerald glasses on the end of her dainty nose. Her long golden hair cascaded over her shoulders and had an ethereal glow in the midday sun. Her crisp white blouse was freshly ironed and neatly tucked into her navy blue pencil skirt, which went just below her knees revealing pasty white legs.
  • Explaining every step of a character’s actions: Running from the house, he quickly opened the car door and jumped into the driver’s seat. He bucked in his seatbelt before inserting the key, turning it and listening as the engine roared to life. Glancing behind him to make sure the way was clear, he reversed the car onto the empty road and sped off, leaving a trail of smoke and screeches in his wake.
  • Overly dramatic or detailed emotions: It was as though her delicate, tender heart had been ripped from her chest and stamped on, crippling her with an overwhelming feeling of intense loneliness. The emptiness he left behind was an excruciating wound that would take years to heal – she could never bring herself to forgive his unforgivable betrayal.
  • Ruining subtlety by overexplaining: A solitary tear rolled down his cheek; he was sad.
  • An overuse of figurative language (e.g. metaphors and similes): A startled gazelle, she somersaulted from her bed like a salmon making a final leap for freedom and landed with the gymnastic grace of a professional ballet dancer on the final sell-out performance of their illustrious and unrivalled career; her blaring alarm clock provided the standing ovation.

Of course, I have given quite extreme examples of overwriting. You might do it slightly less and still be a culprit.

Why is it bad?

Writing that is overwritten can be boring for the reader, especially if it is prolonged throughout the whole piece. In a short story, brevity is key and every word has to be essential so superfluous description wastes words that could otherwise be engaging the reader. They probably don't want to hear a drawn-out description of a character’s physical appearance; they want to know why they should care about them.

Overwriting can also come across as amateurish and as though the writer is trying too hard to impress. It's tempting to think the more you describe something the clearer it will be for the reader but, in reality, if the text is bloated and lacking focus, they’re likely to zone out.

Is it ever okay?

Every writer has their own style and some write with more flourish than others. Good descriptive writers can really bring a scene to life and they often display a great skill that would be lacking without their colourful depictions. However, think of rich writing like a rich chocolate cake: in small amounts it can be wonderful, but too much can soon become sickly.