How to Avoid Being too Wordy in Your Writing: Clause and Effect


by Richard Risemberg


Do you love subordinate clauses? I know I do. And how about assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme? Let’s face it: they can be as tasty as chocolate.

But would you make an entire meal of just…chocolate? (Okay, whoever said “yes” please leave the room now!)

Consider this a meeting of Overwriters Anonymous. My name is Rick, and I used to write overelaborate sentences. Clever and musical they were; there was just too much of them. Frankly, my dependence on brilliant phrasing destroyed my relationship with my early novels, and we haven’t seen each other in decades. The words just got in the way of the meaning after a while, exhilarating though they could be.

Fortunately my current novels don’t have to put up with that dastardly habit, for I have learned how not to over-write. If you want to use your wordsmithing skills to entertain and enlighten your readers, rather than intimidate them with your wit and erudition, here are a few steps to follow….


Accept that beauty isn’t always beautiful
Verbal pyrotechnics can distract from the story . Your job as a writer is not to show off as much as possible; your job is generate emotions and ideas in a fellow human’s soul. Poetry is wonderful, but even actual poems don’t drown their effects in whipped cream. There is grace in restraint.


Avoid grammatical masturbation
Nested clauses, replicating parentheses, sentences that fold and stack upon themselves like a snake on an acid trip may be fun to work out and will also impress a few people who read to brag that they read challenging literature, but such antics get in the way of storytelling.

If you want to write a toccata and fugue in words, see if you can be reborn as a Victorian novelist who channels the spirit of J. S. Bach. Music is the art where form is the subject matter; writing is the art where meaning and feeling must take precedence.


Remember that form really does follow function
It is said that sailboats are beautiful because they have to be to work well. Words that flow smoothly without making a big splash are a sign of good writing. Words themselves are marvelous, wonderful, mind-boggling in their capacity to link our lives to each other across time and space, but the more they call attention to themselves, the less the reader’s attention is called to the meaning that created the need for words.


Give each character a voice of their own
We’ve all read novels where everyone sounds alike, and you can barely tell dialogue from narration. Sometimes this works, when it is done intentionally for a structural and emotional purpose. But usually it just ends up confusing your readers, or, worse, boring them. You don’t need to write blatant dialect for each character, but every personage should have an individual style of making sentences, and employ little turns of phrase that are theirs alone.

In my second novel, Family Ties, I have twenty-one named characters, and reviewers have noted how easy it is to tell them apart and follow the action. Make sure they talk like human beings, with indifferent grammar as part of their speech. Few people in English-speaking countries employ the who/whom distinction any more, or use the subjunctive. I choose to do both, when speaking for myself, if I am feeling pretentious, but my characters–including my first-person narrators–are not so fussy. They talk like people.


Be stingy with metaphor
Metaphor and simile can establish connections between your story and the bigger world, but if you overuse them they become distractions. Yes, they are fun to write. But they often upset the flow of the story. Leave the pizza-to-moon comparisons to cheesy lounge singers. Stick to the story. Stories are more powerful than the words that tell them, as long as they use the right words.

One final suggestion, one that applies to any writing you do, be it fiction, essay, or email to grandma: When in doubt, read it aloud. You may be pleased, but you may be appalled. Reading your work out loud will expose any deficiencies in sentence structure, and will make you a much better writer.

Remember that writing is based on the spoken word. If you run out of breath as you recite, you can be sure that your reader will run out of patience.




Guest post contributed by Richard Risemberg. Richard was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, and editing online ‘zines. He’s survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. You can learn about his own novels at Crow Tree Books.

31 thoughts on “How to Avoid Being too Wordy in Your Writing: Clause and Effect

    1. I like when stories like that keep at least a little of that feel. What era do you have in mind? Jane Austen has a great balance, in my humble opinion, because she’s so easy to read, but she is writing in the style of her era. She’s just not so overboard about it like other authors of her time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pretty much any era before the 19th century that forces me to use absolutely no 20th and 21st century idioms, colloquialisms. Something that requires the use of archaic words and force myself into having an expansive vocabulary and understanding of the language literarily and historically. ☺️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, I can’t give you any real advice, but as a reader, I’d say just keep to as many recognizable words as possible, and try not to write over lengthy sentences where it can be avoided. And you might just have to come to terms with the fact that this modern society is suffering from severely short attention spans, and that there could be fewer people who would even read books like that. But hey, count me in! I like that stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. So very true about the attention span. I blame too many outside things as a distraction. I was surprised that my story of 500+ pages has at least 2000 readers since it is a fan fiction that follows Tolkien’s history including his high fantastic language (original story).

        Liked by 1 person

  1. What a great post. I have seen over-writing many times. There is a balancing act between great writing skills, and writing for your audience. You have to meet somewhere in the middle. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about that problem. I’m far from being a brilliant writer, and I write simple humor. I just published my first book called, Simple Observations, and it is written in a simple, easy to read format.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As writers, our love of words can get in the way of what we actually want to say. Great to find such useful advice on reining in this urge to over-write. I enjoyed your tips — straight to the point but also fresh and funny.


  3. I also dislike long run-on sentences if there is a lack of continuity; but I dislike short choppy sentences even worse. I find them annoying, even confusing at times. Take this example from NYSSA’S Promise by Julia Bell, a really great story spoiled by too many short choppy sentences and sentence fragments : “Why now? Papa died before I was born. Mama when I was a small child. Why wait until now to see me?” These 4 sentences could be excused because they are dialogue; but would be easier to read as one sentence : “Why now – Papa died before I was born, and Mama when I was a small child; why wait until now to see me?”


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