Definition and Examples of Overwriting

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Overwriting is a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.

For writers "striving for color," advises author and editor Sol Stein, "try, fly, experiment, but if it shows strain, if it isn't accurate, cut it" (Stein on Writing, 1995).

Examples and Observations

  • "Overwriting is the failure to make choices. . . . Linguistic bric-a-brac is literature's Elvis on velvet."
    (Paula LaRocque, Championship Writing: 50 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Marion Street, 2000)
  • "[Andrew] Davidson's approach is scattergun: for every lovely image (the 'unholy yoga' of his crash), there is a horrible, almost parodic piece of overwriting ('a cheese strand dangled from her mouth to the edge of her nipple, and I wanted to rappel it like a mozzarella commando')."
    (James Smart, "The Gargoyle." The Guardian, September 27, 2008)
  • Even Great Writers Can Overwrite
    Note that some critics deeply admire the following passages by John Updike and Joan Didion. "With uncommon perception," says Thomas L. Martin, "Updike offers the beauty of these several figures which, lined up, converge in a significatory pattern as do these drops--in a single figurative mosaic" (Poiesis and Possible Worlds, 2004). Likewise, the excerpt from "On Self-Respect," one of Didion's best-known essays, is frequently quoted approvingly. Other readers, however, argue that Updike's images and Didion's figurative comparisons are self-conscious and distracting--in a word, overwritten. Decide for yourselves.
    - "It was a window enchanted by the rarity with which I looked from it. Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain."
    (John Updike, Of the Farm, 1965)
    - "Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards--the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed."
    (Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)
  • Welty's Wordiness
    "Sometimes writers get so excited about specificity and description that they begin to confuse them with mere wordiness. This is called overwriting and is a common early malady in apprentice writers. . . .
    "Here's one of Eudora Welty's early first sentences: 'Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger in Mademoiselle's left side and departed with a poised immediacy.'
    "The solution to overcoming overwriting . . . is simply to exercise restraint and to remember the notion of immediacy. Welty's sentence, short of its too-fancy verbs and its excess of adjectives, might simply have read, 'Monsieur Boule stabbed Mademoiselle with a dagger and left the room in a hurry.'"
    (Julie Checkoway, Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights From Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Writer's Digest Books, 2001)
  • Daniel Harris on Overwriting
    "Even as my prose congealed into epic similes that grew more and more outlandish, I displayed absolute intolerance for the overwriting of others whose prose allowed me to study my own shortcomings at several removes, from a vantage point far above the vendetta I was waging as the self-appointed hatchet man of minority fiction. Often I was so blind to my tendency to write purple prose that I overwrote in the very act of criticizing overwriting, as . . . when I praised Patricia Highsmith, who, unlike other American writers, was so committed to telling her story that she never had 'any time to single out something for its own sake, to pluck it up from its context, and pet it from head to toe with long, voluptuous strokes of adjectives and metaphors.' Far from being smug about my skills as a writer, I was bitterly frustrated, divided between my need to entertain my audience and my abhorrence of the prose that resulted from my acrobatic efforts to maintain my readers' interest."
    (Daniel Harris, A Memoir Of No One In Particular. Basic Books, 2002)
  • Do Not Overwrite
    "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating. If the sickly sweet word, the overblown phrase are a writer's natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, he will have to compensate for it by a show of vigor, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's."
    (William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1979)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Overwriting." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Overwriting. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Overwriting." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).