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3 Lessons From a Recovering Over-Writer

I'm currently reading Rick Rubin's new book, "The Creative Act: A Way of Being." It's all about the ways that creativity emerges, and how creative people can nurture their art.

At one point, he writes:

The person who makes something today

isn't the same person

who returns to the work tomorrow.

That short passage made me think about a transformation I've been making as a writer over the past 11 years, and probably my whole life. I didn't appreciate how much of a transformation it truly was until a couple years ago. Now it feels like the central work to be done for me to fully master my craft.

Pretty much every writer confronts it at some point: over-writing.

Over-writing is using unnecessarily complicated, flowery, or difficult language when simpler prose will do. Read a high school sophomore's book report and over-writing will proudly make its presence known.

But it's not just a problem for young writers. Plenty of professional journalists are in denial that they over-write their stories. They still complain that their editors silence their "voice" and make their stories boring. I know the complaints well. I spent most of my 20s making them.

As someone on a lifelong journey to stop over-writing, and who's coached other writers on avoiding the practice, three lessons have come into focus.

1. You don't sound as smart as you think

I've written before about why trying to sound smart in your writing is a fool's errand. You don't sound smart. You sound like someone trying to sound smart, which doesn't make for a nice reading experience.

Over-writing usually reflects this impulse. It reveals your lack of understanding more than it conveys expertise. When I realized that normal words were perfectly fine tools for gaining a reader's trust, it took so much pressure off.

I invite you to lift that burden for yourself.

2. Over-writing is insecure writing

Maybe I'm projecting here (totally possible), but wanting to impress your reader feels to me like a coping mechanism. It's the writer trying to convince themselves that they are a credible narrator. So, when an opportunity arises, they overload their writing with self-indulgences left and right.

You can't write for yourself and for other people at the same time. You can't stroke your own ego while also being selfless. I've learned this firsthand. The prerequisite for good writing is self-esteem.

Trust that you belong in the writer's chair.

3. Helpful is better than interesting

As I became more confident in my skills, I let the confidence fade into the background. It's not useful anymore. Ego convinces you that your ideas are good, but it doesn't create much of value.

The ongoing work to avoid a backslide into over-writing is to always remember that helpful is better than interesting. The goal of writing is to change how people see the world. Giving them a six-syllable word to look up won't do that. It will make them stop reading and do something else.

Being helpful—organizing information in new and surprising ways—is what shifts a person's perspective. Any time you're over-writing, you are getting in the way of achieving that goal.

Use your writing to help someone.

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