Not an Opera but a Melody

It’s an easy trap for young writers. It’s easy to diagnose but much more difficult to treat. The problem is overwriting. Many people fall into this trap in writing graduate programs. This literary world they enter convinces them they are the next Faulkner or Hemingway, and they proceed to write in a way that is – in most cases – the antithesis of what those writers were all about. Especially in the case of Hemingway, a known minimalist.

When a reader reads a piece of prose, they should be suspended into the world of that piece. This requires that they forget that it’s writing. They must forget that behind it exists a writer. All that should exist for the reader is the world created in the words on the page. Look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. Most people in the first few years couldn’t tell you who wrote the books because the important thing was Harry and his friends, not J.K. Rowling.

Unfortunately, when a writer injects too much into the piece, it is no longer about the prose but about the artist. At that point, the writer is in danger of over writing. Things to watch for:

Too much reliance on a thesaurus. It is an excellent tool and a writer should make efficient use of it and a dictionary. However, using words you’re barely familiar with in prose is dangerous. Using a lot of them is asking for trouble. Always apply (as you would salt) with a light touch.

Over research: I call this the Dan Brown effect. It’s nice that he wants his wife’s hard work to get attention, but less than 1/4 of the research a novelist does should actually end up in the pages of the book. There’s nothing worse than being in the height of a great read and suddenly bogged down by history of no interest to you and little relevance to the story.

Think of the composer. Each note is specifically chosen, but it is more than   choice. The arrangement of those notes is key to the piece being a hit or a miss. It’s the same with prose. It’s not simply the words that you choose but how you assemble them. In what order and the resulting rhythm will make a difference in whether you have Harry Potter or a novel in a file drawer. Whether you write fiction or non fiction, the craft is the same. Each word like each note must be carefully orchestrated to bring your music into key. After all you want the audience to listen, not turn a deaf ear.

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