What Does Trying Too Hard Mean?

Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.” 

Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked. 

Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.” 

Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?” 

“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…” 

Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” 

While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. 

Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it? 

A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.

When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard. 

Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities. 

One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential. 

As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:


7 thoughts on “What Does Trying Too Hard Mean?

  1. You hit the nail on the head here: “Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard.” I’ve often struggled to define what I mean with trying to hard. Now, I know exactly how I’ll describe it (although I’ll use American English spelling 😉

  2. It would be interesting to see what elements left your friend with the impression that the author was trying too hard. Maybe something as simple as using overly complex words or terminology. But if I read a book like that, I just think that the author isn’t aiming the book at me and my reading style not that they’re trying too hard. In my #AuthorToolbox article this month I touched on a similar topic — about how we can make our writing more readable and approachable.

  3. This is a really interesting topic and I love your take on it. I just recently used these words to describe the movie Shazam, specifically the comedic moments. Though they were written well enough, they just failed to land in my opinion. Though I’m sure another viewer would have a different opinion.

  4. Two readers’ for my latest book stand out after reading this. One thought I was trying to hard, the other thought it was damn near perfect, and that one was a judge in a competition I ended up finaling for, so…

  5. I hadn’t thought about what this expression really means before… it is interesting how different readers can have such different perspectives on a text. What stood out to me the most here was where you said that “trying too hard” is kind of a way of saying that the techniques the writer used just didn’t work for that reader. So it’s maybe more that the writer tried hard *unsuccessfully.* So maybe there’s a thought here about honing our techniques to make them work for as many readers as we can. Or, maybe it’s a matter of writing techniques not flowing naturally enough through the story, like maybe to Heather, some of the techniques Gaiman was using came across as gimmicks seeking too pointedly for her attention. Maybe those techniques should be more subtle? We’ll never please every reader, right? Thanks for sharing, Elliot! : )

  6. I find it extremely negative and off-putting when people say that something is “trying too hard.” It’s like saying you should not have tried to do anything great but rather just accepted your menial existence like most reasonable people do. It’s not at all a constructive thing to say if you’re trying to give helpful feedback.

    On another note, I think most people would read James Joyce or Virginia Woolf and say they were trying too hard (assuming they didn’t know who the authors were and that they were generally accepted as literary geniuses). Most people dislike unusual styles of writing that don’t have clear cut meanings and plots or formulaic humor. You definitely have to take your audience into consideration. If your work isn’t right for a broad audience, and you feel that watering it down would reduce its value, maybe “try harder” to find your niche.

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