In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart acknowledged
that certain words and concepts – in this case, pornography – were difficult to
define in a precise manner. He hastened to add, though, that he could rely on
his gut feeling, declaring: “I know it when I see it.”
Likewise, defining overwriting is not simple. It’s a
phenomenon that readers encounter often enough that they know it when they see
it, but they may not be able to identify the exact points at which the writer
has gone off the rails. As a result, they may not always be able to help authors
figure out how to avoid overwriting.
A good editor, on the other hand, can help freelance writers
escape this trap and do a better job of keeping clients happy. At the very
least, an editor should be able to tell them when they’ve spent too much time
at the keyboard, and give them an idea of how to check themselves as they work.
And if you don’t have a good editor yet, you’re in luck.
We’re here to offer some advice, starting with a few different tips on how to
(Don’t) take it to the limit: word counts and deadlines
When freelance authors receive assignments, they typically
receive a set of instructions defining the parameters of the job. These
instructions cover basic points such as length, deadlines, style, and target
With respect to length, clients usually come to the table
with an idea of how much they want. Most will give writers limits, in the form
of word counts or page counts.
These limits are often formulated in a way that offers some
wiggle room. For example, you might be asked to write a blog post that’s
750-950 words long. Even if you have some leeway, though, you should respect
those limits. If you find yourself in (or above) the upper reaches of the desired
word count or page count and you’re only halfway through the task, you’re
probably overwriting. If so, it’s time to start thinking about where you can
As for deadlines, clients typically have an idea of when
they want certain milestones met such as seeing the first draft or receiving
the finished product. You should take those deadlines seriously. Remember them.
Put them in your calendar – both electronically and in paper form, if
necessary. Abide by them.
But what if you’ve been managing your time well, doing a
piece of the job each day and meeting your own expectations with respect to
word count, and you still find yourself needing to ask for an extension of the
deadline because you haven’t finished making all of your points? Once again,
you’re probably overwriting – and that means it’s time to think about how you
can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Know your audience
Style is also a point to consider. Most clients will be able
to tell you what kind of audience they’re hoping to reach, whether it’s
university professors, company shareholders, industry experts, or general
readers. In turn, their expectations ought to drive the work you produce. If
you’re writing for an academic audience, maybe you don’t need to worry about complex
sentences and obscure references. If it’s for shareholders, focus on explaining
the numbers. If you’re targeting industry experts, don’t be afraid to use
jargon. If you’re writing for general readers, find a balance between
describing the basic facts and offering deep background.
This is important because if you don’t match the style to
the audience, you may slip up. For example, if you’re asked to write a social
media post for general readers and you churn out a 2,500-word treatise with an
exhaustive set of footnotes and sentences that average 75 words apiece, it’s
safe to say that you’re overwriting.
Meanwhile, there’s another reason to know your audience: You
will need to have an idea of whether your readers will be familiar with the
topic you’re covering. If they are – as in a highly technical piece that will
be read by industry experts – you can jump right into your topic and use jargon
freely. But if they’re not, you may run into trouble.
What kind of trouble? Over-explaining. If you’re writing for
a general audience that may not know much about your topic, you’ll need to
devote some time to setting the stage – that is, to introducing the subject and
giving enough background to help readers understand what your client wants to
say. It can be tempting to go into intricate detail at this point, especially
if you’re writing about a subject that is interesting or complex.
Nevertheless, you should fight the temptation to tell the
entire story. You do need to set the stage, but you don’t need to include the
entire script of the play, plus a list of links to every published review of
the show. Nor do you have to offer a comprehensive discussion of the history of
theatrical performance, an explanation of the techniques used to varnish the
wooden floors of the auditorium, a review of the weaving techniques used by the
costumers’ fabric suppliers, and an exhaustive biography of the actors. If you
do, you’ll be saddling readers with more information than they want or need.
(So if you’re ever in doubt about whether you’ve crossed that line, remember
comedian Dennis Miller’s line from an HBO special that aired in 1990: “Stop me
before I sub-reference again!”)
One is the loneliest number
We’d like to think that all the advice we’ve just given you
will be easy to follow. After all, it sounds straightforward, right? If you
want to avoid overwriting, follow instructions about length and time
requirements, know your audience, and resist the urge to explain the entire
story from top to bottom and then delve into tangential topics.
But frankly, it may not be simple to remember all these
points – especially when you’re immersed in the job.
At that point, you may have achieved a state of flow that
allows you to crank out one gorgeous sentence after another at top speed. Perhaps
you’re preoccupied by more mundane concerns, such as the ticking of the clock
that shows just how little time is left until your deadline hits. Or maybe
you’ve just been working on the same assignment for so long that you can hardly
see the words on your screen anymore. Under such conditions, your response to basic
advice about how to avoid overwriting is likely to be just about as positive as
the attitude of a toddler who’s been told to eat his or her vegetables.
The best remedy is to get help. Don’t try to finish your
assignment alone; find at least one more pair of eyes to look at what you’ve
written. If you are working with an editor, let that person see your work
before you turn it in. If relevant, show your material to your supervisor,
project manager, or another colleague who may have a different perspective on
what the client wants. You could also enlist the help of a third party or a
beta reader, if you need an objective response that’s not influenced by the
concerns of either the writer or the client.
Once you’ve taken this step, you’ll need to prepare yourself
to receive constructive criticism – and to take heed of the suggestions you
receive. If you don’t, your chances of falling prey to overwriting will
Now we’ll turn the floor over to you. Where have you found
overwriting, and how did you recognize it? If it’s happened to you, what have
you done to overcome it?