Three Ways Authors Write in Excess (And How To Cut Back)

overflowing-glass-1-211872-mToday, I wanted to talk about four ways authors write in excess: that is, the techniques and words we all tend to exaggerate, overdo, and overuse, especially in first drafts.

Let’s face it: if Thanksgiving taught us (well, me) anything this year, it’s that there IS such a problem as “too much of a good thing.” Especially when that thing is my sister’s pumpkin cheesecake.

But back to writing: This post is about trouble areas that are easy to spot and not usually too hard to clean up. The best part? Cleaning them up can do marvels for the quality and “readability” of your prose.

These are things lots of people talk about. To be honest, I know I’ve talked about them before on my blog. But I figure it’s useful to revisit big points. Also, grouping old information in new ways can help us find new connections and learn new things.

1. EXCESS OF BACKSTORY

An excess of backstory? All at once? Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded information dump.

I happen to be queen of the info dump. While that’s not necessarily a good thing, it means I’ve learned how to handle them in my drafts because I’ve had lots of practice. So, what do I do when I notice I have an info dump, or a beta reader points one out to me?

  • First, I question each and every detail that makes up the info dump (or I try to.) Is this point necessary? What does it add to a reader’s understanding of the story and the setting? Is that addition of value? Everything I can do without, I cut.
  • Then, if I still have too much backstory chunked together, I see whether I can move a part of it somewhere else (preferably somewhere logical, considering content, and where it doesn’t sit too close to additional backstory revelation).

2. REPETITION OF THINGS THAT ARE EASILY REMEMBERED

I’m not talking about purposeful repetition here. I’m not talking about reminding a reader of one small of piece of the puzzle revealed earlier before you reveal a related piece that’s completely new (I love that as a reader!)

I’m talking about repeating, over and over, basic concepts that are important to the story: concepts an author can trust his or her readers to remember. The most flagrant example of this I can remember comes from college.

My twentieth century British lit class had to read a short story called “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad.

The story is about a captain (or maybe a lower ranking officer) on a ship who rescues a man from the sea and is shocked to find that they are–gasp!–pretty much doubles.

The narrator says things like, “I was looking at my double” and “I thought I was looking in a mirror.” “He could have been my twin.” And he doesn’t just say this two or three times. It is literally every second or third paragraph, and the main point of various paragraphs throughout the story.

I got SOOOOO annoyed I wanted to throw the anthology the story was in against the wall. This was my reaction to such needless repetition; it’s how readers generally react to this kind of situation:

“I’m not stupid, Conrad. These two guys look a lot alike. That kind of creeps the narrator out, especially at first. I GET IT. Seriously.

It took me, as a writer, multiple drafts to learn I don’t need to patronize my readers. They’re cool, smart people more than capable of remembering the important stuff (when I hint that something is important) and making obvious connections.

3. ADJECTIVES (AND ESPECIALLY ADVERBS)

Writers are always telling other writers “don’t use adverbs whenever you can help it,” and the advice honestly cannot be repeated enough (regardless of what I just said about repetition, haha. Look a me being a big ole hypocrite.)

I’ve tried to be cognizant recently of adverbs, in particular, that I use after dialogue tags. I used to LOVE using adverbs after dialogue tags and they’ve become a nasty habit of mine.

What a character is saying should be well-enough crafted that a reader can intuit a tone of voice and an emotional state. If you need to imply volume, “yell,” “shout,” “whisper” and such are great verbs to use. There’s no real need for “angrily,” “loudly,” “happily,” etc. after “said.”

(And please…. please, for all that’s bright and beautiful, never, ever write “shouted loudly” or “whispered softly.” Using an adverb that your chosen verb makes redundant is the cardinal sin of adverb usage.)

Strong writing always opts for powerful, descriptive, and poignant nouns and verbs over a string of adverbs and adjectives. I can never pass up a chance to quote Stephen King in this: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Is that really where you want your writing taking you?

So, what are some of your writing flaws? Where do you have to rein yourself in because you have to tendency to go overback? What kinds of things do you find yourself trimming back when you edit? I’d love to get a discussion about this going.

Then we can realize we’re all in the same boat πŸ™‚ After all, cutting excesses is just part of the writing process and nothing to feel badly about.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these posts about common writing tics. You can also sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page.

Advertisements

46 responses to “Three Ways Authors Write in Excess (And How To Cut Back)

  1. Great blog, thank you! I must admit, when I saw this I thought ‘oh crap, how badly am I doing’? And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised that what you said to be mindful of, I already am. All the areas you mentioned are my downfalls too but I’m working on them. But I’m glad you didn’t add any new nasty surprises there. lol πŸ™‚

    • hahaha! Glad you enjoyed the post πŸ™‚ We all do those things, especially in first drafts. Like you say, the key is to be mindful of them and just clean them up later when they crop up πŸ™‚

  2. I agree with the shouting/whispering thing but only in part!
    There are times when it is needed to convey emotion. eg.
    The four of them hid behind the great stone casket as the chamber filled with the enemy.
    “You take the one’s on the left, I’ll take the ones on the right.” He whispered harshly to his companion on the other side of the druid princess,
    “There is no need for all this violence, there is always a way out of this.” The princess whispered softly, trying to calm the anger that she could sense in her guardians.

    -Excerpts based on the Dragonlance trilogy by wise and Hickman but doesn’t exactly match the scene. This just goes to show that Whispered softly does have a place in writing.

    • Certainly there are rare instances of exception πŸ™‚ I would say that, if you have the clause “trying to calm the anger she could sense” then that makes “softly” redundant to a large degree. You could argue it provides contrast and a parallel to “harshly” and emphasis though. Not strictly needed, in my opinion (and that’s all it is….an opinion, nothing more.)

      I’m not saying authors can or should never, ever use an adverb πŸ™‚ Just that we should be mindful of them and to cut them whenever possible. That’s what I try to do, at least. I always end up with more than I should have.

  3. Great post! It’s a good reminder πŸ™‚ My problem area is definitely an excess of info dumps, but they have improved a lot already, fortunately. When I edit, info dumps are always cut, slimmed down and/or spread throughout the story so all the information is not shoved down the reader’s throat in one big chunk… Repetition of important pieces is tricky. I’m always afraid that puzzle pieces go missing… still waiting for my beta reader’s reactions to see if I managed to get that stuff right in my WIP πŸ™‚
    When it comes to adverbs, I’m crazy happy that this doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem in my writing. However, even though I agree 200% that finding strong verbs and nouns is always the key, I can’t get warm with the condemnation of adverbs – apart from horrid constructions like “shout loudly”, of course, those are a no-go. Adverbs are a part of our language, and eliminating them out of texts… mh… don’t think this is helpful. Rather, I think that a good feel for the language is essential, so you know when, where and how you can use adverbs in order to create atmosphere.

    • I like what you say here. Adverbs can and do have their place, especially in moderation. That is the key: moderation. I know that my tendency, once I start with them, is to rely on them too heavily because they are just so EASY, you know? πŸ™‚

  4. Good post. Although point number two has a bit too much back story.

  5. Yeah. I’m really guilty of #3 at times. Not an extreme amount, but I do use adverbs when I want to drive something home. For example, the ‘softly whispers’ I use if the character is trying to calm another. In my mind, whisper doesn’t always denote softness of tone. Same thing with yelling, but I only use the adverbs if it’s a sudden break in atmosphere.

  6. I think one of the areas I’ve improved in since I began writing is improving the range of adverbs that I use. Originally when I wrote, I would just use the same descriptive words over and over again and then have to go back and edit. Now I find I’m better at cutting out unnecessary words and only using adverbs that effectively convey a certain aspect of what I’m describing.

    • That is a very good point!!!! Thanks for bringing that up. Even when used in moderation, a range of adverbs that don’t feel forced and out of place with the tone of the piece is better by far than using the same handful over and over. πŸ™‚ You’ve given me something to concentrate on!

  7. My writing uses few adverbs or adjectives. Sometimes though, I feel because it doesn’t, it comes across as screenplay rather than creative writing. It becomes action and telling too much.

    I do have serious issues with backstory. I want my reader to know everything up front and tend to develop my characters through their back story rather than their personality as we move along.. I am working on that.

    • That’s all any of us can do, is work on things as we go and edit to improve. Man, my WIP is such a mess right now, haha…. A year after I finished it I don’t know if in the end it can come to anything. We shall see! πŸ™‚

  8. At least, it’s easier to cut back when you tend to write in excess than it is to fill in when you tend to write too little. πŸ™‚

  9. As a writer, I’m guilty of all these literary sins. The “info dump” is my worst transgression, with “internal dialogue” not far behind. I often have conversations with my characters, telling them, “Even if this did really happen–you know it, I know it…but your audience doesn’t have to know it.” They pout for a while, but get over it!

  10. How propitious your article. On the weekend, I dusted off a first draft of a novel that has been sitting on my shelf for more than a year. I like to leave an interval between drafts because I feel it gives me perspective but I admit, in this instance even the interval was excessive. And I was horrified to find that chapters 2, 3 and 4 were purely and solely information dumps. It was not what I had remembered writing and therefore not what I had expected to find but after over-coming my initial disappointment, I realised that this was a good thing. For the author, back-story is vitally important in building character and whilst I’m sure that there are writers who can get away with keeping it all in their head, there is value in having it written down so that you can go back and refer to it when reviewing what you’ve written, especially to avoid the pitfalls of character-anomaly (the character equivalent of the plot-hole you wrote about recently). If David’s personality was conditioned by the fact that he grew up an only-child in a remote rural community, you can’t have him, in chapter 25, ring up his sister for advice. But I agree with you completely that you have to edit out the bits the reader doesn’t need to know and to use an analogy David might find appropriate, don’t plant all your seeds in the same spot. I felt much more buoyant when I realised that I could use the key (and necessary) elements of the back-story to nurture the subplot contained in the developing relationship between the two main characters as they GRADUALLY learn more about each other.
    Your point 2 is well taken, although I can’t remember reading anything as irritating as that Conrad story.
    With regards to your Point 3, I agree with you that the excessive, unnecessary and (especially) redundant use of adjectives and (especially) adverbs is inadvisable; but the judicious use of these word classes can add colour and texture to an otherwise austere and unappealing text. The first page of James Joyce’s Ulysses contains 7 adverbs and more adjectives than you can poke a stick at and yet it is alive and beautiful. So please, spare the adjectives and adverbs, but use them sparingly. πŸ™‚

    • What an awesome analysis of backstory!!! Thanks for point out how useful all those info dumps can be. the author definitely needs that information, regardless of how much of it a reader ends up needing. I totally agree. And what you say about character anomaly really hits the nail on the head. Truly knowing your character is the best and surest way to avoid that problem. I definitely agree!

  11. I am now published! πŸ™‚ My short story went live Sat. on Smashwords. It is a free download. I found when it was edited that I made the mistake of changing tense. I wrote this is first person present tense. It is really hard to stay in present tense! I have always written in third person past tense and I wanted to try something new. I went over it and another writer edited and when I went back over it, I found some things we had both missed. It was interesting that I rewrote that short story about a dozen times and it still wasn’t the way it should have been. That made me realize the importance of having beta readers and if possible, editing. Thanks for another great post! πŸ™‚

    • Wow, CONGRATS!!! I admire you for trying a new tense. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to write in present tense! I just don’t trust myself enough!! πŸ™‚

      I can’t tell you how wonderful my beta readers are and how much I appreciate them! You are SOOO right there. πŸ™‚

    • Becky, where can we download your story??? I’d love to have the link here (and to read it as well).

  12. “…ly” words are my biggest downfall. I spend more time trying to come up with another way to state things because of the little buggers!

    Thanks for all you share, Victoria. I have a boatload of them saved for “when” I ever get around to writing that novel (in my spare time – ha!). I’m not sure when that will be, for my focus is on learning music theory and writing songs at the moment. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do fit it all in!

    Have a merry Christmas season, and may next year be your best one ever!

    \o/

    • I totally understand there not being enough hours in the day to pursue all your interests and dreams! That is human nature, I think, and while it can be frustrating, it’s much better than not having aspirations or goals πŸ™‚ I’m in the same boat…. There is SO MUCH I’d love to do. I think it’s awesome that you’re a composer. That is incredible and a talent I’ve always wished I had. Writing is writing, no matter what form it takes πŸ™‚

  13. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #11 - The OutRamp

  14. Thanks for asking, Victoria. I did notice a couple of errors after it went live. Nothing major, a couple of misplaced commas and one or two typos, but it’s still frustrating that it wasn’t corrected before it was too late. I am happy to leave the link here. I am also open to any suggestions or comments. Keep in mind this is my first publication, so I’m sure I made mistakes. The important thing, at least to me, is that I actually submitted it! That is what kept me from writing all those years ago. I was too insecure to send it in. So I quit writing and used every excuse why I couldn’t. I didn’t have time to write and hold down a full-time job–(yeah, right! Look at how many do this all the time!) –I didn’t have a computer then–so what? I have one now and do lots of writing with pen and paper. And so it went on. What it all boiled down to was I was afraid. This was before the internet and all we have available to us now. I was sure that I wasn’t good enough. I was probably right. I wouldn’t have been at the time. But, if I had kept writing, there is no question that with that experience now, I would be a much better writer. So, we all live and learn. πŸ™‚ Thanks again. Here is the link to the anthology where my story is but one of many. Mine is called: An Angel For Maggie and it is the second to the last. You can find it in the Table of Contents. Thanks to all that download and comment. If you would leave a comment on Smashwords, it would be greatly appreciated. πŸ™‚

    http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/383338

  15. Yes, it was a major step and it was a huge accomplishment in many ways. It broke the ice. Remember how I told you that I was making notes, reading, but I was dragging my feet about writing? I think this has changed that. Of course, I get the doubting voice still..you know the one, the one that whispers, “Oh, that is crap! Nobody will even take you serious as a reviewer, let alone a writer!” I know that you’ve written about this doubting voice before, so I guess it is common..;) Thanks for all your encouragement, it really means a lot!

  16. Oh Victoria! You’ve hit upon my weakness. I often repeat the same phrases over and over. In one paragraph I noticed the same verb used often (I’m particularly fond of β€œturned”). And adverbs are the fallback for when my mind is stuck (fond of β€œsuddenly”). Characters also explain things ad nauseaum. β€œTell me, how did you get that scar?” β€œI’m glad you asked that, Charmaine. I will now explain how.” A lot of this comes from not trusting the reader and not trusting myself as an author.

  17. Pingback: Three Things Authors Overlook When Writing Fiction | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  18. I cannot say how much I love this article. Seriously, one of your best.

    I just started a book that does all of this except the adverbs, so I haven’t thrown my kindle against the wall yet. The repetition gets annoying because it makes me feel like they don’t trust me. It’s easy to say that as a reader. As the author, however, it’s SO hard to know how to either remind a reader of information or reintroduce a concept without ‘talking down’ to them so much. It’s something I really struggle with that I feel like I need to figure out. But, I think through the process of writing and time, I will figure out.

    At any rate, one of your best! Loved it!

    • Glad you liked this one! You are so right to say how difficult it is to find that balance as a writer (which is weird because it really is so obvious as a reader to pick up on!) This is why great betas and editors are such Godsends!

  19. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  20. Reblogged this on Instant On Books and commented:
    Great advice for writers. We all do these things from time to time.

  21. Great response! I know I am definitely guilty of repetition, especially after a few rounds of editing. I can never remember which details I’ve cut and which I haven’t, so I end up putting them in two or three times. Got to work on that.

    • read-throughs are GREAT for catching that. What you do is, read through your novel without stopping to edit. Just make a note when you notice something like repetition. Then you can fix it later. reading the novel through like that, as quickly as possible, lets us get as close to possible to a reader’s response/reaction to our work.

  22. Pingback: » The OutRamp Writer’s Wroundup Newsletter #3: December 2 – 8, 2013 - The OutRamp

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s