Overwriting happens when the story is swamped by too many details, which stops the plot from driving forwards. If the plot has stopped moving, any tension, pacing and interest gained thus far is lost. At best, the reader will skip past what they perceive as the dull bits; at worst, they’ll put your book down and never pick up another one by you ever again. The key is to give just enough information to provide the reader with all they need to know to understand the story; no more, no less.
Large blocks of text are off-putting to readers, so break the text up as much as possible. Use paragraphs, dialogue and section breaks to increase the amount of white space. This makes it easier on the eye and easier on the mind, and therefore easier to read.
Some stories create a whole new world for the reader to discover, others have forensic procedures to explain, still others have a lot of science or technology that the layperson might not be familiar with. If you don’t include information like this, it can leave the reader wondering what is going on, but adding more than the plot needs wastes words. If the information is given in one block, it’s called an information dump. Information dumps are bad.
What you need to remember is that there is a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.King (2010: 185)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve read books with not one but several information dumps. So many, I learned to read the cues that preceded them and they filled me with dread: ‘Oh no, not another one.’ This is not the way to cause your reader to feel dread – they should only feel that when there is a build-up to something truly awful happening, and they’re afraid for the character.
During an information dump, the story is paused. Nothing happens while you explain all you know about the price of fish. At this point, the reader may think about putting the book down and not picking it back up again. At no point is this more dangerous than at the beginning of a novel: if a potential reader is perusing a book in a bookshop or reading an electronic sample online, a slow start will prompt them to move on. This is the last thing a writer wants.
The trick is to convey only the information that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of the story, only when it is needed, and in a way that doesn’t stop the action or curtail the reader’s emotional response. To keep the reader engaged and turning pages, we need to keep the action moving and the emotions flowing.
Emotions are at the heart of every human-interest story. Emotions are what capture the imagination: ‘How would I feel if that happened to me?’, ‘What has happened to that character that makes them act like that?’
Bringing emotion to a story deepens it to beyond words on a page. The reader will laugh, cry, worry, be afraid – whatever the author wants them to feel – if they allow the characters to have and express their emotions. The reader will care what happens to the characters, will want to see what happens next and how they handle it. Will a character fall to pieces or will they gather their last vestiges of inner strength and prevail?
Instead of dumping information, make its exposition concise, relevant to the story and interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention.
One device to eliminate the information dump is to break it up into dialogue – but it must be dialogue, not a monologue, unless Sam is giving a lecture or a talk. Bear in mind that the reader would be reading a different kind of book of they wanted to be preached at or lectured to. Perhaps Sam could ask Phil about the social life of anemones; the different voices would break up the monotony. Phil would be best giving short, clear answers where possible.
Another device – a better device – is to ground the information in the story and show Sam’s emotional response to it. Does it make her afraid, happy, sad? Has she been affected by it directly or indirectly? Adding emotion will add to Sam’s characterisation
Repetition and tautology
Repetition is boring. The reader doesn’t need to be told the same thing over and over again. Avoid tautology, which is saying the same thing twice but in different words. Repetition and tautology lead to redundancy. Redundant words should be deleted. Every word should count.
If Phil told Sam all about something in an earlier chapter, when Dan turns up and needs to know the information, don’t repeat; instead, skirt round it:
The door thudded open, revealing Dan holding a tray of mugs.
‘I didn’t realise they were so sociable,’ said Sam.
‘Who were so sociable?’ said Dan.
‘Anemones,’ said Phil. ‘I was just telling Sam about them.’
Phil recapped what he’d told Sam.
‘Wow, they are sociable. Who knew?’
Phil smiled. ‘Me.’
Now, in the story, Sam and Dan have learnt all there is to know about the social life of anemones, but the reader only heard it once.
Verbose sentences are often more complex than others. Granted, some characters may speak with a flowery or long-winded style, but the narrative doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have extra words, circumlocutions or periphrastic expressions. If you can say it one word, then say it in one word. Complex sentences are harder to understand; don’t make the reader have to go back and reread a sentence. This not only pops the reader out of the point-of-view character‘s head, but also pops them clean out of the story itself. That might be the time when they put the book down, make a cup of tea and forget all about your work.
There are two types of word that can add clutter to a sentence without even trying: adverbs and adjectives. Delete these where possible, recasting your sentences as necessary. Your writing will be cleaner and leaner.
Another type of word that adds instant excessive verbiage is the filter word. These give the narrative a wishy-washy feel and distance the reader from the action. Remove these to put the reader in the heart of the story.
I’ll leave you with Elmore Leonard’s tenth rule of writing (Leonard 2001):
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skipLeonard (2001)
I skim-read information dumps, and skip large chunks of description and explicit romance scenes. What do you skip when you’re reading? Let me know in the comments to help other writers!
- King, Stephen (2000), On Writing: a memoir of the craft, reissued 2020 by Hodder & Stoughton.
- Leonard, Elmore (2001), Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Harper Collins.