The classic example of overwriting is this travesty...er, paragraph... “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul CLIFFORD (1830)
And yet people still write like this. On purpose. Without knowing that millions of other writers will mock them and make comments like, “I should enter this in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, “Where ‘WWW’ means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”!
What is overwriting – besides the obvious resulting fifty-eight word sentence...
Excuse me? You don’t see anything wrong with the paragraph above and see difference between it and the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ classic literary novel, A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859)? The line that is oft-quoted but almost never completed – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” (see the COMPLETE, one hundred and twenty-eight word sentence here: http://www.memorablequotations.com/Cities.htm)? No difference to you?
I would love to use some examples of unpublished works I’ve read recently in my volunteer position as slush reader for STUPEFYING STORIES. There are some real humdingers I’ve read there, let me tell you! But not only would that be unethical, putting them up on my blog would constitute publishing them – and would give them the same, slightly less elevated status as Bulwer-Lytton’s and Dickens’ work. So I’ll dissect my own work.
While editors have never, in my experience come right out and said, “OVERWRITING!”, they have employed several euphemistic phrases I’ve quoted below:
“I actually found the language you used to be rather dense and information-heavy, which didn't make for particularly easy reading. I would suggest revisiting it with a thought to simplifying it a little for more ease of comprehension.”
“Almost impossible for me to get around the massive amount of information in this piece. It seems like you were attempting to squeeze a novel into a short story.”
“some sentences were difficult to parse (e.g., on p. 18, "Human bodies would flare into the atmosphere and burn up so that the many would put troops down on Weedworld.")...The preponderance of alien names made for some confusing passages, though, and we find our readers prefer things a bit more straightforward -- smoother, with less chance of getting jarred out of the story…”
“Story exceeds our 8k maximum word count”
So what does overwriting mean?
In my experience, it means using more words than are necessary to say something in the story – more than that, though, it means not using the RIGHT words to say something.
Let’s go to poetry – I know, what does poetry have to do with writing stories? I deal with this question the first day of every Writing To Get Published summer school session I teach. In fact, I deal with it on a personal level as well. But when I look at the definition of POETRY, these definitions reflect what I usually get from kids as well as my own perception of it: “Poetry in the Bible has been well defined as ‘the measured language of emotion.’ Hebrew poetry deals almost exclusively with the great question of man's relation to God. Guilt, condemnation, punishment, pardon, redemption, repentance are the awful themes of this heaven-born poetry.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/poetry?s=t)
“When I used to ask students what a poem is, I would get answers like ‘a painting in words,’ or ‘a medium for self-expression,’ or ‘a song that rhymes and displays beauty.’... ‘One might argue that the page is just a metaphor for all that can’t be put on it, and that a poem is merely a substitution, for better or for worse, for a lived feeling or event.’” (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/what-is-a-poem/281835/)
When I overwrite, I am trying to say something profound. I’m ALWAYS trying to say something profound. My most recently published story looked at the morality of using organic monkey brains instead of computer chips in disposable work satellites. (“612 See, 612 Do”, http://www.perihelionsf.com/1407/anomalies.htm) Sometimes I do a better job of it. My wife says that short stories are my forte, and maybe that’s true because I work so hard at saying what I’m trying to say with as few carefully chosen words as possible.
And THAT is what overwriting doesn’t do – a writer just…vomits on to a page without giving proper weight to each word. I rarely notice when I’m overwriting; I usually think I’m being profound. But like comparing Bulwer-Lytton to Dickens, the first simply vomited on the page. It’s apparent to me he was just writing.
In Dickens though, the author clearly considered every word and while we don’t remember the entire first sentence, it left a deep enough impact on literature to be repeatedly quoted – even in a Star Trek movie.