When to Write, Overwrite and Override


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

When to Write

Whether on your laptop, a post-it, iCloud notes or a used napkin, always take the opportunity to write. You never know when an idea for a blog post on writing or perfect lead-in for your presentation on household hazardous waste pickup schedules will decide to travel through your brain. You need to capture it before it takes the express train right back out again.

When to Overwrite
“Overwrite” can mean two different things, so let’s unpack that, as they say.

When to write more words than you need
Again, always.

As long as you remember these two keys – “Backspace” and “Delete” – write away! Other recommended tools to have are the The Associated Press Stylebook, a wide array of non-verbal musical selections, cheat-sheet of filter words to avoid and thick skin.

Editing lots of words is so much easier than editing none at all. Or ones that exist as mere thought bubbles floating in the imaginary cloud above your head. It is better to let the words spill out onto the page than attempt a pre-edit in your brain. In more words:

1. Write out all 2,500 words for your 600-word assignment.
2. Save your work, then walk away for some predetermined amount of time and sunlight.
3. Come back with fresh eyes and attitude, ready to slice and dice with the precision of a neurosurgeon and impartiality of a grand jury.

For example, when I write govie posts, they start out about twice as long as necessary. Hard to believe, right? Thank goodness for you, dear reader, as I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, I tend to overuse the elongated, thesaurusie-styled metaphor. See previous paragraph talking about imaginary clouds. Sometimes a few splashes of Frank’s Red Hot makes all the difference on a conventional egg white scramble. And sometimes, it’s better to either burst the bubble or leave Frank in the pantry. I’ve chosen to incorporate both as a lesson in what not to do. #thatismystory #stickingtoit

If the words are not flowing, try a DoodleStorm!

When to write over the words you write
Relationship status: Complicated.

This one is a little more difficult to stomach for the latent hoarder in some of us, but it is vital to prevent reader fatigue at about the 400-word mark. I’m pretty sure the first paragraph had a lengthy sampling of times to write before it was clear “always” covered it. Plus, have you ever felt that little rush you get from highlighting about 150 words and typing over them with just one? #Whoosh

To show my age and semi-quote Sally Field, if you “really, really like” something you’ve written but your inner editor is telling you it’s too much, “save as” and keep it for later. My editing room floor for this piece has given me a 200-word head start on a post about a motivational playlist for writers.

When to Override
Now and again.

Sometimes we have to let our writer’s heart get a win. A love of the aforementioned AP Stylebook and the oh-so-awesome Grammar Girl keep us consistent and coherent across the various professional communication platforms. And yet, on occasion, it’s okay to get phonetically conversational and overuse dashes to become the relatable human beings we are instead of acronym-prone-cogs-in-the-government-machine we can be perceived to be. I say, “Thhbbbb” to the outdated stereotype of govies! The more we show our constituents our humanity, the more they will trust us and the information we provide them. Don’t change the data, adjust the delivery.

Elmore Leonard said it best: “I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

I’d love to hear about your writing processes! Leave me a comment below and happy writing!

Kathleen Vaught is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Rachel White

This is great! “Relationship status: complicated” -LOL. But what really struck me is the part about showing constituents our humanity. Establishing trust is something I think about constantly. I am in fact working on a post about transparency vs. spin right now. I think you are so right. We are all humans trying to do a good job but our communications often fail to make us relatable.

Kathleen Vaught

Rachel – thanks! I think one of the reasons I am enjoying writing these blogs so much is that it is reminding me of my humanity at work. 🙂 Can’t wait to see your post on transparency vs spin – sounds like a great topic!

Rick Nagel

Dammit, Kathleen Vaught! Here I am trying to write a GovLoop blog by 3 p.m., and you post this relentlessly interesting and helpful article that I can’t stop reading. Love your writing style and the links — especially the cheat sheet of filter words and Doodlestorm! You are amazing!!!


Wonderful, Kathleen! I always keep a file called “outtakes” for any significant piece I write. For a recent speech, the outtakes file is nearly as long as the speech itself. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.