21 August, 2012

Over or under?

Bad writing is something I often think about. I think about it because I love it, and I've learned to love it because I do an awful lot of it. Please don't be offended if I say that, if you're a writer, I bet you do too.

Bad writing is what happens between the blank paper and the not-bad writing. And, with a bit of luck, the not-bad writing is what happens before the good writing. Bad writing is a start.

Bad writing comes in all sorts of forms, but two categories we can divide it into are overwriting and underwriting.You can tell which you are when you edit your work - if you have to add to it, then you're an underwriter; if you have to cut out a lot, then you're an overwriter. I must be lucky, because I'm both.

Are you an overwriter or an underwriter?

When I read back through a first draft, I often find it's rushed and garbled. I've left the reader no time to appreciate one situation before moving on to the next. So I have to add depth and details to give some breathing room and to move from bad writing to not-bad.

Once I'm trying to move from not-bad to good however, I'm an overwriter. I don't mind that.When you put in too much, you have stuff to cut out. However, overwriting is the most glaring sign of an amateur. At school we were taught to use as many different words as possible and to describe everything in painstaking detail. Fine. But we're not at school now. We don't need to show off our vocabulary; we need to write prose that flows and enchants and never, never makes the reader work harder than the writer did.

I've been really enjoying a fabulous series of posts on Suzi's blog, The Literary Engineer, where she shines a light on the words she overuses. A recent post of hers reminded me of my own chief flaw - what I like to call the 'Double-Action Overwrite'.

The DAO is when a character does something simple, but I've used two verbs to describe it. I first noticed this in my children's novel. I was editing it and came across the line,

"Rowan reached out and picked up the sword." 

It occurred to me that reaching was unnecessary. If Rowan picked up the sword, we can assume he reached for it. Something clicked in that moment that I've tried to carry with me into all my editing since then. Rowan now picks up the sword, he doesn't reach for it - or if he does, he keeps quiet about it.

There will be plenty of occasions when two verbs are acceptable and even necessary, but plenty more when they're not. Does your main character need to 'appear to be thinking'? Can he not just be 'thinking'? Do you need to say he puts the bag down before picking up the plate? Is it not obvious?

At the risk of making this post ridiculously long, I'll share with you my least favourite sentence in literature. It comes from a series of books that I really like (if you ignore the awful sex scenes). Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel are great for anthropology geeks like me. But you have to love the story because the writing is so over the top. This sentence nearly had me throwing the books across the room:

"She beamed a grin at him."

Really, Jean? Did she? Could she not have beamed at him? Or grinned at him? Or, if we're going to be radical here, could she not just have sodding smiled at him? My opinion is irrelevant as the books have sold in their millions, but then so has Fifty Shades of Grey... Oh, and don't get me started on Raymond E. Feist and his constant use of phrases like, "he had little wish to..." and "she had scant need for...".

I'd like to say this post is too long and therefore overwritten in an ironic sense. Alas, it would be a lie. Instead, its just another example of bad writing!

What words or phrases do you overuse? Are you guilty of the Double-Action Overwrite?

16 comments:

  1. I know what you mean about teachers making children use far too many words (particularly adjectives) to describe a character. Instead of a picture you end up with a long list... I endeavour to avoid this!

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    1. Good for you! A revolution in teaching! Having a good vocab. is step one. Knowing when not to use it is a greater skill!

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  2. Teachers have a lot to answer for.

    On the other hand, I've recently stopped using stand up and sit down. I now use stand and sit. If they're not up or down (and how often does that happen) then I add another word accordingly.

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    1. I think teachers do a grand job. They teach what they're required to teach and I'd much rather they taught children to overwrite than underwrite. Subtlety in writing comes later only if they know how to create vibrant pictures in the first place. It's only a problem when adults are still writing like they're hoping to get a smiley face stamp on their work!

      That's a great example of the kind of thing I look for when editing. There's a lot of redundancy in everyday phrases.

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  3. Oh wow. That was so cool to be reading along and then see my name. Thanks!

    For all the words I overuse or don't need, and there are way too many, I still consider myself an underwriter. One of my big problems is setting and description. I have to go back and add that stuff in, because it doesn't come naturally.

    So I guess I kinda balance myself. I delete all those unnecessary words, but replace them with ones I do need.

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    1. I think I'm quite like you then. I have to delete a word or two from pretty much every paragraph - I also have to force myself to change some of the 'have not's into 'haven't's etc. But I have to add whole paragraphs/chapters to give the story any depth!

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  4. You'd be surprised how many MSS I come across with the line 'He nodded his assent' or 'She nodded in agreement'. Since no one (except perhaps in certain cultures) nods to disagree, it's safe to assume that just 'nodded' will do!

    To answer your question, I'm definitely an underwriter. The drawback is that in my opinion it's much easier to cut a long MS than to add to a short one you though was finished. But but both as a writer and as a reader I identify with the quote by Elmore Leonard: 'Try to leave out all the parts readers skip'.

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    1. I've read quite a few "she nodded her head"s too. I suppose it's best we make it clear that she didn't nod her arm, or her spleen.

      Cutting is definitely easier than padding. Partly, because if you think you're finished you're loathe to add words for the sake of it. Hope your editing is going well...

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  5. I'm was beaming a grin as I read the blog post. Someone told me that Fifty Shades has someone flushing that many times that the reader wondered if they were on a water meter. As regards being over or under, I used to overwrite - as evidenced by my pre-edit 142,000 word fantasy. Subsequent novels have been underwritten, but not necessarily in a good way. It all comes down to the quality of the words. Every day, in every piece, I'm getting better and better. I hope!

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    1. If my post hadn't already been ridiculously wrong, I was going to say that bad writing changes as we go on as well. Really dreadful writing will alwasy be dreadful, but what might be bad for me now, might have been a reasonable attempt at fiction for me 4 years ago. I'll always write badly in my opinion because I'll never get it right first time - but how bad my bad is will (hopefully) change!

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  6. My Mum is leading literacy at her primary school and has brought in a writer to teach kids some GOOD writing. : ) Things are changing I think.

    I underwrite but by choice, just to get the structure in (necessities too) to get the less fun bit out of the way. Then I go back and decorate!

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    1. I love the idea that writing is like cake-making - get the structure right and then do the decorating!

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    2. Alos choosing to underwrite doesn't count. It's what you do accidentally that makes you a bad writer!

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  7. I definitely overwrite. When I begin writing, I can't stop until I pause after a few seconds. I have to edit a lot out and it takes quite a few edits to make it perfect. Rarely, do I underwrite. This is an excellent post!

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    1. Thanks, Livia. I'm excited to have a film reviewer on my blog! You sound very like me - I have to do some many edits - even of blog posts - to make things a sensible length!

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    2. That's wonderful you're glad that I visit on your blog! I enjoy the stop by here.

      I also have to do many edits on blog posts so I just write my blog posts in a Word Document, edit it a million times, paste it in the Blogger Dashboard and publish it. It's the most convenient way to do it and I love it!

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