When I was a senior in high school, my AP Literature teacher handed back my essay with her notes. I don’t remember what the essay was about or what grade I got, but what I do remember is what she said to me in her notes in red. She said, “This is good, but you need to dig deeper. You’re only scratching the surface.”
Well, Teach, I took your words to heart and ingrained them into my soul.
I certainly fixed this problem. I have no trouble digging deep and expressing myself in great detail. I actually use too much description.
That’s correct – I overwrite.
My short stories are never actually short. I have several that are 15-20 pages long (double-spaced, but still too long). My master’s thesis novella turned out to be almost 50,000 words (average “good” length for romance is about 30,000). My blog posts often start out at almost 2,000 words, but I cut it down to half that and use the rest for a different blog post.
I go beyond scratching the surface, to digging a deep hole that I can’t easily climb out of.
I write and write and write until I realize I’ve veered so far off my path that I can’t see the starting point. This is probably why I have so much trouble writing effective endings to my stories – it’s hard to know how to end if I don’t remember why I even started writing. That’s when I go back to the beginning and cut and cut and cut, until the main point is as clear and focused as I can possibly make it.
But it’s hard to do so, as I always think everything is necessary. I find it hard to cut back because I can’t always distance myself from the work to look at it objectively, as is the case with many writers. To me, all the minute details are important.
It’s this way when I tell someone a story (just ask my husband). I start with the background information (most of which is unnecessary – like who cares if my shirt was orange, when I’m talking about ice cream?). Then I get to the climax, before I give them the reaction and explanation as to why the story is so funny.
By the end of it (20 minutes later to what should’ve been a 3-minute story), no one’s paying attention. I ruin the momentum, and I can’t backtrack or erase or revise. These people lose precious minutes of their lives because of my super long story, and there’s nothing I can do about it but stew in my guilt.
But it’s not like this with writing.
In writing, I have the blessed luxury of deleting all the deadwood that isn’t actually that funny or interesting or whatever it is I meant by including it. I take out all the irrelevant parts and focus on what I hope to accomplish with each work.
Easier said than done, though.
Overwriting is one of my many weaknesses.
It’s something I struggle with every day, and every time I struggle, I try to stop myself and take a hard look at what I can do to change it. In the last year or so, I’ve done just that. I’ve taken the time to try to improve this, and it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, I’m still improving. Because although some specific and long details are necessary, depending on the situation, they can just drag the story on and bore the reader.
My goal is to hook readers, not lose them in my wordy landfill, trudging through the trash to find the gold. No matter what I’m writing, my main goal is to entertain, inspire, and encourage, and I can’t do that if I lose them in the filth.
So, in my attempt to remedy this issue, to turn my weakness into a strength, I’ve taken up a new genre and style to help me cut down on wordiness.
For those unfamiliar, this type of essay is usually no more than 500 words. Which seems impossible for someone like me, and it was in fact difficult.
Okay, at first it was downright brutal.
When I first started toying with this type of essay, I struggled. I couldn’t get my work down to less than 1,000 words. When I’d revise, I’d somehow end up adding even more instead of cutting down. I’d lose sight of what the point of the essay was, and I’d end up starting over.
At first, it was really discouraging and having the opposite effect I hoped it would.
But I didn’t stop.
I studied other flash non-fiction works. I studied their structure and style. I analyzed them to understand what made those works effective.
I didn’t give up.
I messed around with flash non-fiction for a while, and I still do from time to time. Although I still find it difficult and exhausting at times, I believe it’s helped in the grand scheme of things. And while I’m still improving, I can see the progress I’ve made, which is definitely justifies my terribly embarrassing happy dance.
Even though I’ve never shown anyone my flash non-fiction writing, as that was never the point of trying it, I feel like the benefits are evident in my manuscripts and blog posts (hopefully, anyway). I’ve given my works more purpose by taking out the meaningless parts. I can feel prouder of my writing, knowing that I’m putting in the extra effort to pinpoint my exact weaknesses and tackle them head-on.
Through the struggle of doing so, my only hope is that I’ve come out a better writer because of it. After all, that’s my main goal, and no matter how long it takes or how tedious and exhausting it might be, it’s worth it if I means I’m closer to that goal.
So take the time to improve your craft, no matter what that might be. Try different outlets to make that progress, and don’t be afraid to explore tasks outside your comfort zone. It might be scary and you may not even show anyone what you’ve been exploring, but you come out better for it.
And that’s what matters.