Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘overwriting’.
Some people would call it ‘trying too hard’. Others, simply being pretentious. But essentially, it is when an article or even just a sentence is too convoluted, too ambitious, or simply too long and unwieldy to make clear sense for the reader.
Since my time churning out reams of unedited whimsy as a student newspaper columnist, I have long identified this is a central weakness of my own. There is an anxiety when you first start out as a journalist that causes you to grapple for something like poetry – to try and show your ability operating at full tilt – even if it’s 150 words on an Adam Sandler movie.
But the practise is hardly restricted to amateurs or newbies. It’s astonishing how much you see it in the professional world too. Take for example this recent comedy piece on a national newspaper website, by a journalist trying out the high-brow-take-on-a-low-brow-topic thing in reaction to the Katie Price/Alex Reid break up story:
This week, Lost in Showbiz has been forced to drag itself to its laptop from the floor, where it has lain all week, prone and inconsolable. Like the rest of the country, it has existed these last few days in a state of mute incomprehension, the eerie silence rent only by a sound unheard since it was described by Clive James in the aftermath of Diana’s death – “‘No’, pronounced through an ascending sob, the consonant left behind in the chest voice as the vowel climbed into the head voice, the pure wail of lament whereby anyone, no matter how tone deaf, for one terrible moment becomes a singer” – and repeated rueful plays of Katie Price’s No 60 smash hit Free To Love Again, which, in its own way, also makes one think of the pure wail of lament whereby anyone, no matter how tone deaf, for one terrible moment becomes a singer.
Note that after the first sentence, the next extents for 126 words (the average, they say, is 15) – all of which undoubtedly was meant to convey the basic irony of the piece, but can anyone genuinely say they read this fine the first time through? Or, more pertinently, found it funny? As Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit. Or as one unimpressed commentator put it:
full stops and shorter sentences. You should try them.
The same week, a link did the rounds on Twitter alerting everyone to Tim Radford’s excellent (though ironically, a little long) ‘25 commandments for journalists’. The first two read:
1. When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.
2. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson’s Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.
This, I think, is one of the most difficult lessons to learn when trying to become a journalist. I’ve heard it described, bluntly but rather brilliantly, as ‘killing your babies’ – the ability to take an idea or a paragraph that you’ve lovingly crafted and sacrifice it for the benefit of the greater whole.
As one still prone to ‘overwriting’ – and I’ll happy send anyone who is interested a compendium of my own mangled paragraphs – my writing heroes have always been those that show the very opposite quality.
None more so than a man synonymous with sparse, concise prose – Ernest Hemingway, who discovered his literary ambitions after being a newspaper reporter. In fact, of the many fascinating things Hemingway said about writing, one was that he owed his success to his first job as the Kansas Star cub reporter, specifically the strict style guide he was give that probably went along similar lines to Tim Radford’s.
You’d be hard pushed to find a single overwritten line in Hemingway’s entire bibliography. Rather, by adhering to strict principles of simplicity (in terms of syntax, rhythm, structure) he produced what is widely regarded as some of the most poetic prose of the 20th century.
There is one other thing Hemingway said about writing that I try to remember to repeat to myself on a daily basis:
The first draft of anything is always shit.
And it’s true. How many of us (too few, I suspect) stop to reedit even that most superfluous of self-expressions, our Tweets, to get them in tip top shape?
What I suspect Hemingway also meant is this: over-write to your heart’s content – it’s where the pleasure lies, after all – just be sure to walk away, come back to it later and get pruning. Otherwise no piece of writing will ever be what it could have been.
Learning how we can reconcile this fundamental principle to the fast-paced world of modern journalism – in which our efforts to break announcements, top Google searches and be first with pithy critiques so often define our idea of ‘success’ – is a challenge facing all young journalists today.
It is also, I believe, one of the few areas in which our job has become more difficult than it was for overwriting generations gone past.
FOLLOW SAM PARKER ON TWITTER