The Forest for the Trees: How to Cure Overwriting

The Following article appeared on the blog “Live, Write, Thrive”  on January 7, 2015

It was not authored by me! I just wish to share the wisdom with you. It sounds like it is going to be quite a series to keep track of. Enjoy!


January 7, 2015 in The Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing

Welcome to our new, exciting course for the year! Four editors are going to delve into The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing and help you learn to identify and correct faulty writing that can weaken your fiction. You learned last year how to construct a solid novel, but if your writing is flawed, your book will fail.

With every post giving you Before and After passage examples, you will get a clear picture of what not to do as well as how to spot and fix such travesties. Be sure to join in on the discussion and share your thoughts and examples (both good and bad) to help your fellow writers. And ask questions if you need elaboration. We want to help you be the best writer you can be! So let’s begin!

Editor Rachel Starr Thomson tackles Fatal Flaw # 1: Overwriting

When you put pen to paper, it’s fully possible to underwrite. To fail to say what you meant to say. But just as possible, and more common, is overwriting—the tendency to say too much, in too many words, and crowd out the forest for the trees.

Overwriting takes many forms. Wordiness. Overuse of modifiers and weak sentence construction. Vagueness. Redundancy. Convolution. Pushing metaphors so far beyond the breaking point that they cease to be enlightening and become ridiculous instead. Purple prose.

(Wikipedia: “In literary criticism, purple prose is written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”)

In all forms, overwriting loses the forest for the trees: readers get so snarled up in excessive words, tangled sentences, and overdone diction that the big picture is lost.

It’s not fun to read. And often, it’s not fun to write. If your words feel forced or unnatural while you’re writing them, you might be falling into this trap. It often happens when we try to “sound like real writers,” or we want to come across as particularly smart or poetic. In those cases we lose our own voices for something artificial.

Finding the Forest

You correct overwriting by letting go of your commitment to every individual tree, leaf, and branch and rediscovering the forest instead. Where’s the heart of the scene? The point of the dialog? The voice of the character?

There’s a story that tells how Michelangelo carved his famous David by chipping away everything that didn’t look like David. That’s how you cure overwriting.


As the sun was sinking down far below the edge of the purple, colorful horizon at the edge of the world, Jenny raised her wineglass to her ruby red lips and sighed sadly to see the day end. “It’s over,” she breathed.

Behind her, her impossibly handsome Italian boyfriend, Calvino, pushed his chair away from the table where they had been eating dinner like a panther slinking through the shadows of a dark night in Africa. She was just thinking he had been sitting there too long and wondering when he would come to join her by the edge of the expansive gold-rimmed balcony with its fluted decorations patterned after a famous architect from 1743.

He started to come toward her, and she waited for a long, interminable minute, staring at the purple sunset clouds, until he walked across the balcony, approached her shoulder, and bent down slightly so he could whisper in her ear. “It’s never really over,” he murmured.


As the sun sank below the purple horizon, Jenny raised her wineglass to her red lips and sighed to see the day end. “It’s over.”

Behind her, Calvino pushed his chair away from the dinner table. It’s about time, she thought. She saw his dark Italian features from the corner of her eye as he approached her on the gold-rimmed balcony.

“It’s never really over,” he whispered in her ear.

In this example, the edited version is far shorter—and far more focused.

It cuts redundant language, so “As the sun was sinking down far below the edge of the purple, colorful horizon at the edge of the world” becomes “As the sun sank below the purple horizon.”

It cuts a lot of the small in-between actions that can so clutter prose: “She was thinking and wondering”; “he started to come toward her”; “he walked, approached, and bent down.”

The rewritten version also implies the relationship between the two characters through their actions and words, rather than explaining it outright. It cuts details that are irrelevant to the scene (the eighteenth-century architect) and a simile that, in the end, added nothing to the character or the moment.

By cutting all these examples of wordiness, we end up with a sharper scene—one that is focused on the forest. The tension between the characters. The lament over the end of the day. The promise of something more to come. Many a tree is gone, but the picture is clearer.

Extrapolate that first example over the course of an entire scene, or an entire chapter, and you can see why overwriting can be such a problem—and why learning to cut back, to focus on the scene you actually want your readers to see, can go such a long way toward creating a sharper, more vivid and memorable story.

Your turn:

What do you think? Would you have kept any details or wording in the BEFORE section? Why? Have you ever found yourself forcing words in order to sound smarter or more “writerly”? What were the results? Do any of the examples of overwriting given above regularly show up in your own work?

by  Rachel Starr Thompson








Rachel Starr Thomson is a full-time freelance editor and the author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the Oneness Cycle and the Seventh World Trilogy. You can find her at her website here.

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