Bridge to Story

The Pitfalls of Under and Overwriting

We all start out doing one or the other – over or underwriting. I think it comes down to nouns and verbs we use, and how that’s done to make them seem stronger. Do you attach adjectives to every noun or trail your weaker verbs with too many adverbs?

An adjective describes a noun to paint a more vivid, colorful picture. An adverb modifies a verb, adjective and other adverbs. Sadly, too many colors on the canvas, or employing too much paint detracts from what you are trying to get a reader to see.

Not every line of your needs to be beefed up or trimmed down. But where it will help your storytelling, consider trying these tips for ferreting out a weak or inaccurate verb tendency most novices fall into.

How Do I Overwrite?

I won’t subject you a real example of overwriting, but I’ll give you this list:

When you use most –ly ending words in abundance you are overwriting.

Search your own work for words like:

  • Particularly, obviously, suddenly, momentarily, necessarily, reasonably, swiftly, happily, strongly, shortly.

Keep a special watch out for the use of the word suddenly. Especially when used like this:

        Suddenly Sylvia felt the brush of lips against her own.

            (Brush is not a sudden move; it’s usually quite the opposite).

Using words groupings that serve no purpose you are also overwriting. Search your own work for word groups like:

  • Seemed to have, had nearly, slight edge in her voice, some form of, as if she was..., reasonably simple... (Instead of simple), that many (instead of many), already, just, somehow, almost like a, by all accounts.

These word groups stall your sentences. They act like the verbal equivalent to Y’know, and like. That peppers a lot of talking we hear. But in your writing, to get a line to read well, they are just extra words you can do without. They take space in your sentence – but don’t say much.

That was an example of overwriting problems. Underwriting is also a problem. Which do you need to work on? Go to the example page for a look at underwriting.

Example Toggle


Underwriting Example

A chase scene is in progress. Your two characters is facing a life or death moment if they are caught. And you’ve underwritten the next line.

A door slammed behind them, sending bottomless reverberations crashing through the echoing space.

What are the more active sentence elements here?

  • Verb – slammed.
  • Adj/Verb/Adj – Bottomless/Crashing/Echoing

There is a need for each of these sentence elements. The question is: are these WORDS the best choices for showing us the slammed door, the noise it created, or the size of the space that slammed door made that noise in?

What Could Be Noticed Here?

Slammed tells us of a noise. But we don’t hear it yet. (sound). We don’t know if this door is slammed open or shut. And two differing sounds are made once you know that (detail).

  • Slammed shut sounds like a shot being fired. It has a quick end to its noise.
  • Slammed open will create a noise that bounces and repeats until its motion is slowed. It has a lingering end to its noise.

Bottomless/Crashing/Echoing – do these words denote the same things in helping to describe a slamming sound (once we know if it was a quick or lingering end to the sound of the slam?)

  • Bottomless reverberations (what sound is this?)
  • Reverberations that crash through space (what sound is this?)
  • Echoing spaces (what size place makes that kind of noise?)

We really could know more here. Go to the exercise page, let's see what we can do with this.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Our novice is faces with this under written example:

A door slammed behind them, sending bottomless reverberations crashing through the echoing space.

How can this be made better? Considering trying to give your reader that sound instead of saying a sound was made. This doesn’t mean adding Pow! Zap! Wham! in your sentences.

But it does mean giving the reader the noise, and not just the word for the noise. Slammed tells us there’s a noise, (and does it in past tense form). But we don’t hear it yet or know what type of slam it was (open or closed slamming sound).

How would you have shown this noise to your reader without resorting to adding Pow! Zap! Wham! in your sentences? By making the noise heard. Try that.

How? By showing a reaction to the noise, not narrating it. Before trying this, ask this question:

Who will react?

The character, roosting birds, skittering rodents, the building itself?

Remember that the world you write is always populated by more than your characters alone. Well, it could be. When doing so serves the telling of the tale. So have other beings, or even inanimate (or non-human) objects, react to what you are currently showing the reader.

A door slammed behind them, the single echoing shot sending roosting doves skyward; wings crashing free through the rotted beams in the hollowed out space.

You will be writing more, but that extra line or two may provide the visceral or physical detail that brings out what it is you see in your mind.

More on the Best Verbs

When you use vague verbs you are under writing – and you really could do better. Be aware that best means precise in its use, rather than fancy  but imprecise in your use of the thesaurus.

Verbs should show action. The best verb can show the best detail of an action. Using the best verbs for inanimate objects can do so too. So don’t forget that the sun can sting or bite at high noon. The door can hide or reveal (someone).  The Chevy can growl in the line at the DMV. The news can deflate or cheer (someone).

Weak verbs are the state-of-being (forms of ‘to be’) verbs & helper verbs words that novices fall into using; even though they only show a state of being, and not action:

  • am, are, become
  • been, being, is, could
  • did, do, does, had, has
  • should, was, were, would be

Search your own work for weak being verbs and look for action verbs that don’t move much like:

  • She could see (instead of she saw),
  • Went to sleep (instead of a stronger verb like fell asleep, or dropped off to sleep).

Search out and destroy most all uses of the verbs GOT/GET. There are plenty of robust verbs that will show a better image and give the reader a better story.

Begin by asking, ‘What do I want to show here?’ Then, find these problem-words and highlight them to see how often this is an issue with your first drafts. Yellow marker all over your page? Replace those phrases with any stronger verbs of your choice. Rewrite for both your under and overwriting problems.