Overwrought & Overwritten

Posted on April 11, 2011 by


I believe writers are being confused. Not on purpose, of course — I don’t think anyone in the industry is trying to give bad advice to amateur authors. But I do see professionals giving advice that suggests overwrought prose is a result of editing too much.

There is such a thing as overwrought and overwritten prose. There is no such thing as prose that has been re-written and edited too many times.

First: overwrought prose is a mode of writing. You can spot it without knowing how many times a person has edited her work. It’s defined by the tone of the language.

Second: overwrought passages are things you take out when you edit. You can sit down at your desk and jot down an overwrought character description, first try — and it would be crazy to think it wouldn’t improve by editing.

Editing is always good.

Let me enforce that.

Every time you edit, you are doing something positive.

Of course, the nature of Time and The Human Condition (as well as other, more practical concerns such as “eating” or “sleeping”) naturally prevent you from doing an infinite number of edits on any piece. I’m also not saying that each edit will improve your work. Some edits add a good deal of suck.

My point is this: you can always revert to an older draft. If, for example, you decide that nothing will suit your piece better than to re-name your main character “Crystyllenexia” during a particular pass, you can always revert to the previous draft when you get down from your castle made of rhinestones  and unicorn poos.

(You do have all of your previous drafts, right? Right?)

Here’s a short quiz. How many times was this passage edited? (Nicked from this post at The Literary Lab.)

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.

Answer: we don’t know, but feel inclined to say “not enough”. As one of Stephen King’s early rejection letters told him, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”.

Don’t worry about losing all those precious words, either: if you save all your drafts and edit until you can’t find anything you want to change, you will give your beta readers, critique group and eventually your honest-to-omg Editor the best possible body of work you can.

For example: let’s say your Editor finds a passage and says, “You know, I think your authorial voice is showing too much here.” (Not good — like flashing a bra strap.)

If you have all your previous drafts, you might well be able to say, “Oh, I think I have a subtler draft of that. Let me send the scene to you with my next round of edits, or even right now if you prefer.” Either way, you’re saving yourself and your Editor a lot of work, and a fair bit of time.

If you don’t have your previous drafts saved — or worse, you knew that passage was clunky and you didn’t fix it — you’ll have to rewrite it from scratch. Yuck.

The point (I’m belaboring it thoroughly, I know) is that lots and lots of editing doesn’t produce overwrought prose if you do it right.

So what does? These things:

– inexperience
– vanity
– the desire to emulate another writer
– a lack of editing

I want to start a movement called Fearless Editing. Motto: “Give it Clout, Cut that Out!” (Okay, so the motto needs work.) Our goal: to convince authors that they can play with their manuscripts without doing them any harm.

I realise that the opposition will have some burning questions. I’ll take the opportunity to be prescient and answer them here:

Q:  How do I know when my manuscript is ready?
A: If you aren’t sure, ask your crit group or your betas. If nobody agrees, it’s likely that your gut feeling about the manuscript is your best option for action. If there are a lot of people who agree that something should be changed, change it, for heaven’s sake. If everyone loves it, click your heels with joy and proceed.

Q: Seriously though: my beta group is nice but they don’t know how to write/my characters/my genius. How do I know when my manuscript is ready?
A: Are you willing to take the chance that you are D.F.W. and your beta group are Yahoo Answers? Wait! Waiiiit. Wait before saying “yes”. Home truth time: in all likelihood, you are not even Yahoo Answers. You’re the guy who mentions he has a PhD in every YouTube comment — and misspells “PhD”. If you still want to take that chance, do it. I’m kind of ambivalent about D.F.W.’s status as genius. But you go ahead.

Q: I’m too lazy to edit. It’s so harrrrrrrrrrrd.
A: Suck it.

Q: But I don’t have time to edit!
A: Okay. Good luck with your hobby, because you don’t have time to be a professional. Professional writers churn out manuscripts in a matter of months. They have to; most of them don’t get paid very much, so they make it up in volume.

Q: How many edits do you do, then, Miss Smuggity Ponce?
A: Approximately 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 jillion billion. I don’t write in drafts — I write a lot like Stephen King’s portrayal of Kurt Vonnegut in On Writing:

Kurt Vonnegut […] rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them. The result was days when he might only manage a page or two of finished copy (and the waste basket would be full of crumpled, rejected page seventy-ones and seventy-twos), but when the manuscript was finished, the book was finished, by gum. You could set it in type.

Q: Will you edit my work?
A: Certainly! You can either enter my contest, ask me very, very nicely, or you can offer to pay me.

Q: Huh, contests. I expect you’re either collecting information to sell or you’re going to spam me or it costs money to enter, right?
A: No way. I want more blog readers and Twitter followers. All you have to do to enter is guess the film and tell other people about the contest via Twitter or your own blog.

Q: Write your own.
A: I’ll put it in the comments!