Overwriting

Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw 2009

I sometimes visit Rich Man, Poor Man, a store in Cayucos, California. Antiques, collectibles, and junk all vie for a shopper’s attention in a crowded display. Most of the time, I can only be in the store for 30 minutes because the mish-mash of things makes me nervous.

Clutter makes me nervous too. Anything cluttered.

Often, young writers try to impress their audience and end up overwriting in a cluttered sentence, a busy paragraph, or a dizzying essay.

These same writers may go on to become salt and pepper shaker or Hummel collectors.

When teaching this aspect of writing, I lug in a satchel of items and put them all over my desk before the students arrive: hair spray, Peet’s coffee cups, figurines of Labrador Retrievers, old Economist magazines—you get the picture.

And then I say, Good Evening. Have you had a good day? Tonight we are going to learn about overwriting and why you should avoid it.

The students are distracted by what’s on the desk. And the point is made before we look at writing.

Today, I am going to pick on Salman Rushdie again and his overwritten novel, The Enchantress of Florence. Here is one sentence:

In those days Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egoists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings, and yet neither poet nor painter, musician nor sculptor had come close to what the emperor, the Perfect Man, had achieved.

Now students, please reduce this image to one we can get our heads around.

The emperor of Sikri was above all, a Perfect Man, better than any egotistical artist or poet.

Nice.

Here’s a beauty from Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition:

The fog slowly crept in and covered the metropolis with its sinister cloak of impressive quietude. An entire day of heavy rain had drenched the surrounding municipality, forming puddles in the thoroughfares which reflected the shimmering images of the gleaming streetlights and the illumination emanating from multitudes of office windows.

Let’s work on stripping out the long Latin nouns and adjectives that end with tion, ality, ive, and tude. Let’s also find adverbs and adjectives that do not add to the description.

The fog slowly crept in and covered the metropolis with its sinister cloak of impressive quietude. An entire day of heavy rain had drenched the surrounding municipality, forming puddles in the thoroughfares which reflected the shimmering images of the gleaming street lights and the illumination emanating from multitudes of office windows.

At this point, I suggest undressing the description to a naked sentence. Then we can redress it.

The fog crept in and covered the city with its cloak. An entire day of rain had drenched the streets, forming puddles that reflected the images of the streetlights and office windows.

Good! Now, let’s add some clear description:

The fog crept in and covered the city with its sinister cloak. An entire day of rain had drenched the city, forming puddles that reflected the shimmering images of streetlights and office windows.

Voila.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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7 Responses to Overwriting

  1. Douglas says:

    Point taken. Now, what of the sparsity of terseness?

  2. Douglas says:

    Just a jest. You demonstrated that constraint is much more effective than excessive prose, regardless of the beauty of the descriptions. I am often guilty of overwriting and I tend to get too terse when I try to trim things a bit. It is an art.

    • Cheri says:

      I picked up on your jest. Loved it. Love wit!

      I overwrite myself…

      Hard to find the middle ground between Faulkner and Hemingway, between Virginia Wolfe and Stephen Crane.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    I love doing that to passages! Deconstructing and reconstructing. Very very fun!

  4. Douglas says:

    Andreas, you are an editor at heart, aren’t you?

  5. Andreas says:

    Only of myself. I would never do anything so sadistic to others…

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