One of the biggest problems I see with most things I edit is overwriting. I touched on this last week in “What Journalists Teach Us.” People who don’t study journalism tend to overwrite. They don’t have word discipline.
Writers overwrite on every level. On a story level, they get stuck on the phrase, “the next day…” How about “three months later”? If nothing much is happening, don’t write about it. We don’t have to see every moment of the character’s life — just the ones that move the plot forward. Don’t get so caught up in showing us the protagonist’s character that you spend endless pages developing character without anything happening. Develop character in reference to the plot. Remember, keep that question in mind while you’re writing — the one question (or two) that must be answered by the end of the book. Never lose track of those questions throughout your writing, and you won’t meander off the plot track into character over-development no-man’s land.
On a scene level, writer’s tend to get lost in pointless detail. For example, if you’ve got a character sitting at a table who jumps up and punches someone, you don’t need to say, “He set down the stein of beer, pushed back the chair, catching the rear right leg on the rug, unfolded from the chair, stood, turned in the man’s direction, took two steps toward the man, pulled back his arm, and punched the man.” Honestly, too much detail! Our brains create pictures in our heads as we read, and they will fill in all of those little details. Let the readers create their own mental images. Save the detail for scenes where you really need them to “see” something a particular way.
And then there is the sentence level. Now, there are writers who I read almost as much for the beautiful style of writing as for the story. But most of us don’t have that talent. For us, the writing tells the story, nothing more. So don’t over-explain, over-describe. Don’t tell me he moved quickly unless the quickness is important. (Or try “hurried.”) You don’t need an adjective or adverb with every noun or verb. If you’ve already described a character’s beautiful hair, you don’t need to add the word “shining” to every reference to it. There are only so many ways to describe blue eyes — if you’ve used every word in the thesaurus for “blue” over the course of the book, maybe you’ve described the character’s eyes a little too often. It just sounds silly after a while, like a kid getting into the dictionary and trying to impress the teacher with these big new words. If you’ve told me the character is shy, you don’t have to explain that in every scene. Or you could use shorthand to remind me — “his face reddened.” I don’t need, “because he was shy, and this beautiful girl was standing in front of him.” I’m not dumb — I can figure that out on my own.
You might think you’re really giving your readers value by giving them so many words, but look on writing as investing in the best quality words rather than throwing a crap-load of cheap words at the reader. One of my favorite movies, Moonstruck, I love as much for the writing as anything else. Juno is similar. Every word is perfectly selected, exactly right for the scene. Not one unnecessary word is included. Every sentence says so much with so few words. I’d love to be able to write like that.