Overwriting: the curse of academia

Overwriting is in my blood.  If I can use six words rather that two, I’ll do it.  When revising, I sometimes realize entire paragraphs could probably be reduced to a single sentence.  Being an overwriter is burdensome.  I’ve given rather a lot of thought to where the problem came from, and I think I’ve zeroed in on the culprit:  academia.

My background is as an archaeologist.  By and large, this has enriched my writing, especially with respect to world-building.  But overwriting is the dark side to the marriage between academia and fiction.

Drilled into you again and again in academic writing is this:  don’t write for the general case, be specific.  Academia is a little like a shark tank, in which the sharks have been deprived of food for months.  When you throw a new paper in the water, it’s like the most delicious chum ever.  So, as an academic writer, you have to armor your paper with clauses and footnotes and awkward words and phrases that make it SUPER CLEAR that you’re talking about one, tiny, specific thing, and that thing only.

An example from a paper I wrote a few year ago, in which I define the term “ritual”: “I focus on the role of ritual in identity constitution.  Rituals are repetitive practices that, under certain circumstances and in particular contexts, have the power to generate the sentiments of affiliation underlying specific identities.  Rituals are also highly material, and thus archaeologically observable, in that they rely on the bodily movements of a performer, the physical space in which the ritual is conducted, and the objects through which the rituals themselves are enacted.”

Setting aside the special joy of the incredibly long sentences, my personal favorite bit here is “under certain circumstances and in particular contexts”…but, in the end, I include this snippet to illustrate just how much academic writers have to lay out every possible nuance of what they’re talking about.  That may be a necessary evil in academia, but it goes down like malt balls covered with lead in fiction writing.

When writing fiction, less is generally more.  You want to leave the reader room to let their imagination pick up what you’ve written and breathe their own life into it.  If you overwrite and didactically spell out every detail, you take the magic out of your writing (not to mention making the story twice as long and boring).

Of course, overwriting is more than just over-specificity.  There’s all those adverbs and adjectives, redundancy, info-dumping, and plenty more besides.  Not all of these are evils carried over from academic writing, but when you heap the curse of academia on top off the big pile of overwriting no-nos, well…it can become a pretty big mountain to climb.

Of course, knowing you have a problem is half the battle.  Curing yourself is another matter entirely, requiring practice, mindfulness, and the patience of your writing group.  So, while I’m very grateful to my academic background (after all, it gave me incredible experiences, a fabulous husband, a bunch of great friends, and tons of fodder for writing interesting stories), I do sometimes feel it’s set me a nasty handicap.  Guess it’s time to go out and buy the 10% Solution.

What about you?  Do you suffer from the malady of overwriting?  If so, where did yours come from and what methods do you use to eradicate it?

4 thoughts on “Overwriting: the curse of academia

  1. Adam Rogers

    I deal with this too. Generally I subscribe to a similar process as you do. I read about doing this in Stephen King’s On Writing. One thing that helps while I’m writing is sort of a self edit. I have an imaginary Bill Ferris who reads along as I write. “Show, don’t tell! Get rid of that form of ‘to be’. Too many words!” Well, it works for me anyway.

  2. EF Kelley

    10% Solution is a truly excellent book. In fact, I was having a discussion with one of the other Taos attendees on just how useful it has been.

    As a side note, when I want a character to be excessively wordy I immediately turn to Academia. And watch some Frasier. 😉

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