Overwriting is when you tell and retell, and then even show (and maybe even retell again), a character’s emotions or a reaction to an event. Overwriting tends to slow down the pace of your novel and bore readers—some readers may even be offended that you feel like you have to tell them so many times the important points of your book.
Beginning children’s novelists and picture book writers can really struggle with this before they get to know their audience well and put trust in them. These young readers will figure out plot points and character emotions without being told again and again. Think about this: if you handed a fourth grader a new smartphone and handed the same smartphone to his mom, who do you think would figure out how to use it first? When young readers and teens are interested in a story and love characters, they don’t need overwriting to understand the story. Picture book readers have the text and the illustrations to help tell the story. Trust them! They’ll get it.
Here’s an example of overwriting from my own writing. I am using the characters from my middle-grade historical fiction novel, Finding My Place, set during the Civil War’s Siege of Vicksburg; but hopefully, I do not actually do this in the novel (although the draft probably had passages like this or worse!). This passage could have easily appeared in a rough draft:
Anna didn’t think she would last another minute living in a cave. She hated the cave! Her brother and sister detested it, too. Her brother said, “I hate living here.” Her sister cried every time they went into the cave. Anna felt nauseated when they entered the cave to sleep. She felt sick to her stomach when she lay on her mat. What was she going to do? How could she help her sister and brother? She didn’t know what to do. She hated the cave.Has anyone ever written something like: “She felt sick to her stomach. She was nauseated,” like in the above example? I find myself taking the same idea and wording it in a different way—or saying the same thing in my dialogue and my dialogue tags, such as: Martha felt horrible about lying to her parents. “Why did I lie?” she said to her brother. “I feel awful about it.”
In picture books, writers hardly ever have to tell readers how a character is feeling because the illustrator can show that. Sometimes for the sake of rhythm or explaining a concept, an “emotion” sentence will be included. But this should be the exception, rather than the norm.
I’ve overwritten more times than I can count—and I hope I catch these overwriting spots in my revisions or with the help of my critique group. Most of us tend to overwrite in the first draft. When we’re working on word count or exploring the emotions of our characters, we get wordy and repeat ourselves (as well as forget to show and not tell). The great news is that revision is the place to concentrate on fixing these simple and common mistakes.
When you have a spot where you think you’re overwriting, choose the strongest image or the least wordy one or even the example where you do the most showing instead of telling. Most of the time, you only need to tell a reader one time about an event or a character—unless you’re repeating words or phrases on purpose as a literary device.
One spot to really watch for, especially if you have an exciting YA novel or a middle-grade mystery, is when you write an action scene for readers, and then later in the story, a character is asked about what happened. The character should not retell the entire story. Readers already saw it unfold. For example, let’s say one of your characters witnessed a convenience store robbery when he was buying a candy bar. He talks to police after the robbery, but all readers need to know is something like this:
After Officer Davidson asked Rob what he saw, he tried to remember as much as he could. Did he see the face of the guy? Rob told the officer what he heard and what the guy had on, but that’s all he could come up with.
Remember, readers are with you, and they get you. You don’t have to tell them too many times—so, I’ll stop now, too.
go here. Her next class for novel writers for middle grade and YA readers starts on September 30.