Watch Out for Overwriting: Once is Enough!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020
If you're a children's or young adult writer, do you ever ask yourself: How many times do I need to tell young readers important facts in my novel? Do I have to do it more because I am writing for kids and teens?  The best answer is just like you would in an adult novel—kids and teens are smart—sometimes, we don’t give them enough credit, which can lead to overwriting.

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.

Margo L. Dill is teaching her WOW! novel writing course with a writing coach this summer, starting on July 3 and on August 7. To sign up, go here. Her next class for novel writers for middle grade and YA readers starts on September 30. 


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I don't know if what I'm spotting in my ms is overwriting as much as it is just repeating myself. I've been reading my mystery ms and find myself thinking, I said that, I already used that example, why am I saying that AGAIN?"

Whatever you call it, I've got plenty of work ahead of me. Like finishing this draft.

Margo Dill said...

Hey Sue:
I think that we don't realize we do this! And I am a believer in how important it is to get the draft finished. I do think we fix overwriting in the revision process. Good luck with the manuscript!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--It's a fine line (for me). I don't want to leave any holes, so the reader is clueless, but as you say, I also want to give the reader credit. (I also doubt that Sue is as redundant as she claims. ;)

Cathy C. Hall said...

I think my manuscripts tended to be a little underwritten because I initially came from flash and/or short, short stories; I assumed TOO much.

Then I began to overcompensate by overwriting. Ugh!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

It isn't that I mention something 4 or 5 times. It is 4 or 5 things mentioned twice. Sometimes that works but the way I've done it? Nope.

But like Margo said, the rewrite will give ma a chance to fix things like this.

Margo Dill said...

Sioux: One time at Saturday Writers, I remember a speaker letting us know that we really didn't have to write all action that a character does. Some is implied. If they are driving in their car, we all know that they had to get in it and start it, etc. I think it's a fine line though because sometimes if you don't write in-between steps, readers are confused and wonder about a transition from one scene to the next. With plotholes, I think it's the same way. Some things we can hope the reader will assume, but some things we do have to spell out. I think really in the above post, I am also trying to make the point that we don't have to overwrite just because we write for young readers. It's all about pacing and style, no matter who we write for.

Cathy: HA! We can't win--right?

Renee Roberson said...


I think this post spotlights just how critical having a good editor is! These are things a newbie writer wouldn't even have on his or her radar. I remember being insulted when I got a critique back that wasn't great, and then I realized I was doing exactly what the editor pointed out, "filtering." Angela even caught a bunch of my "filtering," or saying things like "I could see the people walking around us," or "I could hear the sobs of my daughter," in a nonfiction piece she read for me. Once she highlighted them all, I knew what to cut and tighten up. I guess your post also stresses the importance of outlining, which I loathe, ha ha. If you have everything laid out in beats, or scenes, ahead of time, there's more of a chance you'll cut the overwriting and over-explaining out.

Angela Mackintosh said...

It's SO hard to edit your own work. I've been away from my memoir for a few months (months! arg!) and I have to remember to reread previous chapters or I'll repeat the same themes in different ways like I just did recently. Other times I'll love two similes so much that I'll include them both--it was like ___ or ___--when I should just pick the stronger image. I figure it's okay on the first draft to throw everything in and then cut it out later, but it does create extra work and makes the flow choppy. And I actually have all my beats constructed, but I tend to go off the rails when I'm in the zone. Great examples, as always, Margo! :)

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