Strengthen your prose

February 16, 2018

 

 The best writing is strong, direct and makes every word count. Sure, you might want to add as many words as possible to your draft to reach that target of 50,000 words if you're doing Nanowrimo, but flabby writing full of superfluous words is more likely to result in form rejections or bad reviews than a successful writing career.

 

 

So how do you make your writing stronger?

 

Tip # 1: Avoid redundancy

 

She screamed loudly.

He whispered softly.

They ran quickly.

I thought pensively.

 

Can you spot the redundancy? If you're running, you're already moving pretty fast. If you're screaming, it's most likely you're being pretty loud. Delete all the unnecessary words and (a) your words will have more impact, and (b) editors won't think you're an idiot.

 

Tip # 2: Avoid adverbs

 

You'll notice that all the redundant words in Tip # 1 are adverbs (words which describe action). Adverbs should be used sparingly since they usually indicate weak writing. If you're using an adverb to describe the action, it could mean that you're not using a strong enough verb.

 

If you find yourself writing "Don't!" he said loudly consider re-writing it as Don't!" he shouted.

 

Tip # 3: Eliminate qualifiers

 

Qualifiers are words which weaken the other words around them. These are words like 'quite, nearly, almost, very, really, somewhat, usually'.

 

'She was quite a pretty girl' sounds naff, doesn't it? But if I say 'She was a pretty girl', immediately you get a stronger feel for who she is.

 

If she's an especially pretty girl, I could say 'She was very pretty' - but don't you agree that 'She was exquisite' sounds so much stronger?

 

Search for these qualifying words in your manuscript, and find more direct ways to re-write them.

 

Tip # 4: Delete directional words

 

She stood up.

He sat down on the edge of the desk.

She placed her cup down on the table.

He climbed up the rock face.

She looked at him.

"Hello," she said to him.

 

Since sitting usually takes place in a downward direction, the directional word is redundant. Unless you're giving your character a rather unusual movement (eg. 'She sat up straighter') delete all these extra, unnecessary words.

 

Also, if you have only two characters in a scene, it's obvious they're speaking to one another, so words like 'to him' or 'at him' become redundant.

If you have four characters in the conversation, then feel free to add directional words, but in that case you might want to be more specific. eg. "Hello," she said to Jim.

 

Tip # 5: Skip the boring bits

 

Your characters are leaving the office and going to lunch at a pub:

"My brain is going to explode. I need lunch. Are you coming with me?" Jane rose from her desk.

"Only if you're buying," John replied, standing too.

They exited the open plan office, walked down the corridor passed the reception desk, and stopped at the bank of lifts. Jane pressed the button, and they waited until the doors opened, then they stepped inside. The lift travelled down three floors, opening on the first floor to admit two men in smart suits, before finally reaching the ground floor. Jane and John waited for the businessmen to exit the lift, then they followed, stepping out into the vast foyer. They crossed the tiled floor to the automatic glass doors which opened onto the street. Outside on the pavement, they checked left and right before crossing the street. They entered the quaint Irish pub where they often had lunch, looked around for an empty table, then sat down at a table by the window, with a view out over the street.

If you aren't bored yet, I am!

 

Imagine you're editing a film. Edit out all the boring bits and cut straight to the action.

 

"My brain is going to explode if I don't take a break. Are you coming with me for lunch?" Jane rose from her desk.

"Only if you're buying," John replied.

They crossed the street to the quaint Irish pub which served the best grilled calamari in town, and sat at the table by the window, with a view out over the street.

Boom! Done!

 

Tip # 6: Avoid flowery, pretentious language

 

Sure, you want your prose to be evocative, but beware going over the top into flowery language (otherwise known as purple prose). If you're writing literary fiction, you might want to embellish your sentences to create artistically beautiful prose, but if you're writing genre fiction, and telling a story, you're way more likely to simply annoy your readers.

 

Here's a delightful example, adapted from TVTropes.org:

"The writer chooses to indulge in the writing technique knows as purple prose, wherein the writing becomes florid, eschewing quotidian sentences for elaborate concatenation of phrases and clauses."

 

If you're writing to prove to the reader just how clever you are, you might want to consider writing academic treatises rather than novels.

 

Or as George Orwell so succinctly put it: 

"Never use a long word where a short one will do."

 

 

Do you have any other tips on how to make writing stronger and more direct? Have you read examples of clunky writing that made you want to give up on a book? Share your thoughts and comments below.

 

 

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