The biggest mistake writers make is wanting to write something people like
Not because it’s impossible or that you’re not allowed to shine like the bright star you are—because your desire to write something “amazingly awesome that everyone’s going to love” leads to overwriting.
When you try to sound intelligent, you bloat your writing with unnecessary words.
When you try to sound amazing, you focus on how the language sounds in your head. And if you focus on how your writing sounds, you lose focus on grammatical structure and meaning.
The foundation of quality writing is grammatical structure and meaning
A house, no matter how beautiful it is, will crumble under pressure if the foundation is faulty. Your writing is no different. Much of my job as a copy editor is to wade through crumbling foundations and fix the flaws. Most of that work involves using the delete key.
Overwriting is bloated writing. Overwriting complicates meaning. Overwriting is not trusting your readers to get it—or not trusting yourself to get your point across.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you make the complex accessible and easy, you’ll sound intelligent.
The cause of overwriting is focusing on the end result—appearing smart or having people like what you wrote—and not paying attention to what matters: your meaning and reason for writing.
Don’t obsess over how you want your readers to think about YOU, obsess over how well you communicate your meaning. Obsess over your ability to write a tight, concise sentence. Obsess over your purpose for writing.
Because your writing is not about you. Your writing is about what it does for your reader.
What overwriting means for your writing process
Everyone overwrites. You do. I do. It’s a fact of life. But don’t let a fear of overwriting cause you to censor yourself. You can’t edit a blank page. Get all your thoughts and ideas out first. Then address overwriting.
The brilliance of editing is that no one sees what you write until you hit publish. You can have the most atrocious first draft ever and no one has to know. Once you’ve brain dumped, identify the purpose of your writing. What do you want your readers to take away from the piece?
Every sentence, paragraph, page, section, chapter needs to be judged against your purpose. Does it support your purpose? Does it add valuable information? (And yes, a quick laugh can be valuable.) If your answer is no, get rid of it. That’s overwriting.
Spend an editing pass or two (or more) looking at each word in your sentences. If removing the word changes the meaning of your sentence, it’s necessary. If removing the word doesn’t change the meaning, you’re probably better off without it. Wield your words carefully and intentionally.
Because overwriting wastes your readers’ time and attention.