On over-writing

I’m worried I’m an over-writer. Look, I just really like adjectives, okay? My worst stylistic habit is stringing them onto my sentences two at a time, like perfect glossy beads. I can see myself doing it, but can’t stop. Adverbs, too. And when I write descriptively, allusively, using grammar rhythmically, I sense my meaning sharpening a little more with each detail.

But I fear being mocked for it. Where terse prose seems guarded and detached – ‘in control’ – there is something cringingly earnest about descriptive prose that leaves the author personally vulnerable to accusations of indiscipline and indulgence.

If prose is imagined as an encounter between writer and reader, then the over-writer has poor social skills. She garrulously tells rather than gracefully showing. She wants desperately to be liked, but tries too hard and bangs on too long. Ignorant of the ‘good writing’ etiquette espoused by critics and creative writing courses, she chooses the wrong verb as if choosing the wrong fork.

Since 1982, entrants to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have striven to compose ‘the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’, inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s notoriously digressive opener: ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’

And in the 1930s, the Inklings, an Oxford literary clique whose members included JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, amused themselves by attempting to read aloud the purple prose of Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros without laughing.

Ros’ writing isn’t merely bad, marvels Slate literary critic Mark O’Connell, ‘its badness is so potent that it seems to undermine the very idea of literature, to expose the whole endeavour of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent – and, even worse, silly.’ Her ironic fan following included Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley and Siegfried Sassoon. And Ros knew full well she was the butt of their jokes. In return, she vengefully dissed critics with a repertoire of insults colourful enough for any blog comments section: ‘half-starved upstarts’, ‘evil-minded snapshots of spleen’, ‘clay crabs of corruption’ and (my favourite) ‘rodents of state’.

We ridicule over-writing to shame writers out of ‘bad habits’, much as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award shows how not to write about sex. There seems to be a prevailing belief in creative writing circles that primary teachers inadvertently train the next generation of over-writers by encouraging students to choose colourful verbs, adjectives and adverbs. (Ros was a schoolteacher.) Novice writers, the argument goes, escalate to even more eccentric words, and more of them, believing these will produce even better writing.

Professional writing courses often seek to disabuse this belief, instead promoting economy of expression. And we understand the editor’s task as a pogrom of darlings. Much as the merciless Gordon Lish made a star of Raymond Carver, editors pare down prose as if revealing the natural timber grain on gaudily painted furniture.

I definitely remember learning at school that using ‘said’ in dialogue was dull and unimaginative. I also recall being praised for deploying a large, vivid vocabulary, leading me to identify as being ‘good at writing’.

But now, my confidence is faltering. Recently I’ve returned to writing fiction after a career spent in academia, journalism and copywriting, and I don’t trust my own prose style. What if my being ‘good at writing’ isn’t an ability to use language beautifully and evocatively, but merely a workmanlike ability to line up ideas in a row?

In a 1985 New York Times essay titled ‘In Defense of Purple Prose’, author Paul West suggests that what is called ‘over-writing’ is really the writer striving to convey the intensity with which she experiences the world. When we’re ‘habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid,’ West argues. Purple prose is, in his beautiful phrase, ‘a paste as thick as life itself’.

Or, as teen videographer Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) whispers in the famous ‘plastic bag scene’ from Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty: ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.’

The scene teeters on a knife-edge between pathos and absurdity, but is cushioned by its soft accumulation of details. Bentley’s anguished microexpressions; the gleam of his tear-slicked eyeballs in the dark; the barely contained erotic yearning of his viewing companion, Jane Burnham (Thora Birch); Thomas Newman’s plaintive, enigmatic piano score; the digital grain of VHS seen in close-up. These moods, gestures, textures and frames animate the scene as the wind animates the bag, enabling us to forget we are talking about frickin’ litter here. If American Beauty were a novel, it wouldn’t have the gruffness of a Carver, but the hallucinatory satire of a Thomas Pynchon.

By contrast, Katy Perry’s song ‘Firework’ instantly inflates with chirpy bathos like an airbag, as Perry enquires solicitously, ‘Do you ever feel like a plastic bag/Drifting through the wind/Wanting to start again?’

‘A writer who can’t do purple is missing a trick,’ says West. But, he adds, ‘A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks.’


This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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