Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Overkill


House iwth Too Many Decorations -

I took this photo on Christmas day.

I call it, “Overkill.” At least twenty-four blow-up decorations can be counted from this angle.

I love it, because it shows so much energy and excitement for the season. The exuberance behind it just makes me laugh. At the same time, I realize it’s just too much.

The theory can be applied to writing, especially journalistic writing. (Remember, “Just the facts, ma’am.” ?)

A news story answers only the whos, whats, when’s and wheres. Follow-up news stories might contain the hows. If it’s more in depth, the whys might be explored.

Whatever you do, don’t offer your own opinion or theory (although you might quote someone else’s) and don’t resort to language greater than one-syllable words unless the word you’re using has no alternative.

In other words, use “red” and not “vermillion”. Do use the word cytosol  instead of saying, “that jelly-like substance between cells.”

More on how to write a news story in another post.

There’s plenty of overkill in fiction, too. It’s best to “kill your darlings” if you find yourself writing too much.

Spare, elegant writing is usually better than ornate, dazzling words. When I see writing like that, all I can think is that the writer cared more about showing off his knowledge (“Look at how many big words I  know!”) than about telling a good story.

I find in my own writing it’s the prose that seemed to flow so freely — when it feels like my muse is sitting on my shoulder and whispering the words right into my brain — that I’ve got to review it for probable “overwriting.”

I’m getting good at not allowing it to appear on the page at all, but sometimes it sneaks in. New writers are especially fond of overwriting…especially if they are aspiring literary artists.

Here’s an example. Start with a perfectly good sentence:

Jane walked through the park, pushing the stroller.

But what about the park? We haven’t really described it in any detail…

Jane walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller.

It’s getting there, (if a bit awkward) but we don’t know anything about the situation from Jane’s point of view, do we? This sentence is about her, after all. Her and the baby, right? Let’s put some emotion into it. And when you’re done, you’ve got a fantastically overwritten  sentence.

Jane happily walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller containing a smiling, gurgling infant.

There’s a lot of rich detail in the final product, but it’s hard to determine who the sentence is about. Is it about Jane and the baby? Or is it about the old men and children feeding the ducks at the pond? Worse, could it be about the park?

All the extraneous clauses, adverbs and adjectives conceal the point of the original sentence.

Don’t feel like you’ve got to pack every bit of detail into a single sentence. If you want to say more, write another sentence. But beware, sentences in a paragraph can be just as cluttering as words and clauses in a single sentence.

When in doubt, leave it out. 😉

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