This week, we're digging deep into wordcraft with an ultimate guide to writing good prose. As ever, our thanks to the Alliance of Independent Authors members who contribute to the creation of these guides. In particular this week, ALLi blog and conference manager Sacha Black, who has literally written the book on this topic. And particular thanks to Julie-Ann Corrigan, Julie Day, Richard Deakin, Chrissy Harrison, Dan Holloway, LK Hunsaker, H.B Lyne, Karen Myers, Patricia M Osborne, Kristina Proffitt, Jane Steen and Debbie Young,
The Ultimate Guide to Writing Good Prose: How to Improve
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”
King is famed for the above quote but I think it's misleading. While reading a lot is important, it's an entirely passive form of learning. In my humble opinion, there's only so much you can learn passively. Of course, reading in whatever format it occurs in is essential as a writer, but there are two types of reading. Reading for escapism, and reading for knowledge.
I'm more of a fan of Malcom Gladwell's ethos: you need 10,000 hours of intentional practice to become world-class in a particular field. I think we learn a lot faster when we read with the intention to pick up new tools and techniques for our writer's tool belt.
When I read, I underline anything that stands out, for good reasons or bad. Next, “How” and “why” are my friends. As I gather sentences from the stories I read, I save them up for later analysis. When it comes to deconstructing the good stuff, I like to ask myself questions like:
- How did the author create this effect? (and what literary devices did they use to make it?)
- How did that juxtaposition create a secondary meaning?
- Why did the author choose this point of view? Why didn’t they choose another?
- Why did they use that exact word and not another?
- How does that repetitive use of alliteration impact the flow of the sentence?
And on and on the questions go.
This type of detailed deconstruction isn't for everyone but I'm a word nerd and I love going deep into analysis.
Of course, you may prefer to dive straight into professional feedback and learn from the things an editor picks up. If you're interested in learning more about the types of professional editing, there's a fab post on the ALLi blog here.
Writing Good Prose: Three Mistakes to Avoid
There are no rules in prose, you can get away with virtually anything. Including not using a full stop — you only have to look at Mike McCormack's 272 page Solar Bones to know that, the whole thing is one sentence! But there are some tactics that sharpen your descriptions and sentence level craft. So here are 3 things to avoid in your prose.
Mistake 1 – Repetition
Okay, sure, everyone knows their first draft will be riddled with repetition. But usually, writer's think of repetition as crutch words or phrases they unintentionally repeat multiple times. For example, just, but, so, that, look, hand, eye, glance, walk.
But what about the other, more subtle forms of repetition?
Different Words, Same Meaning — writers often unintentionally use different words to describe the same thing. For example, describing cold temperatures multiple times with words like chill, icy, cool.
Same Words, Different Meaning — the flip side of that repetition is using the same word in a different context. For example, the hum of a bee and the hum of a car's engine.
Duplicated Archetypes — duplicated character types. For example, do you have two mentors? Are there an unnecessary number of allies? Of course, sometimes these duplications are needed. But more often than not, you can condense the duplicated characters into one more effective and efficient character that readers can get to know better.
Duplicated Personality Traits — likewise, look for repetition in personality type. Have you got two sarcastic divas? Or two brooding gentlemen? Do you really need two? Or would it be more effective to have one?
Name, Name, Name — we all have biases. Which is why you should always check your character names. More often than not you'll have named characters with similar-sounding names or names all beginning with the same letter. If you have Natalie and Nancy or Tony and Tom, your readers are probably going to get confused.
Opening and Closing of Scenes — check the opening (and closing) lines of your scenes. If you have four scenes back to back all opening with a location description, or all starting with dialogue, or all starting with inner monologue, you need to edit out the repetition.
Mistake 2 – Filtering
Filtering is an easy one to add into your narration by accident. Essentially, filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character. Your reader should ideally see the story though the eyes of your protagonist or narrator. But when you add in narration, the reader steps out from the hero's eyes and watches them from the side.
Filter words include things like:
- I heard
- She saw
- He felt
- I thought
Let's show this in practice.
I heard an owl hooting in the trees and a moment later I saw the canopy leaves rustle as if replying.
Your readers don’t need to read the word “heard” or “saw” because the action of hearing and seeing is implied in the description of the sound. Okay, so what does it look like when you remove the filtering?
An owl hooted in the trees and a moment later the canopy leaves rustled as if replying.
Of course, there are no rules with prose, and you don’t have to remove every instance of filtering, especially if removing it will impact the meaning of your sentence.
Mistake 3 – No Scene Anchoring
A lack of scene anchoring is one of the fastest ways to disengage a reader. But what is it? Scene anchoring is the process of grounding a reader in your story. Every time you open a new scene or chapter, your reader needs to know three things in order to stay grounded in your story.
- Who is telling the story? If you write stories from multiple points of view (POV) it's even more important to be clear who is narrating this scene. If you write in first person, then this is a little more obvious.
- Where are the characters? Are they in space? Are they in a castle on another world? Are they in the local cafe? The reader needs to know. This is even more important if your characters have moved location between scenes. Your reader may have put your book down at the end of the last scene break, so they'll need a refresher.
- When are they? Whether time has passed or not since the last scene, don’t expect your readers to know. They aren’t mind-readers. Be clear. Let them know how much time has passed.
Writing Good Prose: Sentence Level Characterization
I often get asked how you create characterization at the sentence level, be it through description, dialogue or otherwise. The biggest factor in showing the differences in your character's personalities, is to show their personalities and let it influence your word choices.
For example, let's say we have two characters viewing a town parade as I do in my book 10 Steps to Hero: How to Craft a Kickass Protagonist.
Character 1 sees the parade like this:
“They move like a current, each person flowing past the next. Supposedly united in their cause, but as they chant and sing for solidarity, it sounds like the melody of mourners. I see the tiny fractures, the gaps they leave between each other, the scattered looks, the fear of isolation. Each of them is drowning in a swelling crowd, and yet, despite the mass of bodies, they’re all fighting alone.”
Character 2 sees the parade like this:
“The villagers weave through the street brandishing placards like rifles. They’re soldiers marching into their last battle. The war-drum beat of their feet grinds into my ears, rattling my teeth and making my blood boil.”
Character 1 is clearly melancholy. They use longer words and longer sentences with more punctuation than character 2. Character 1 chooses to use descriptive words like: fractures, isolation, scattered, mourners, drowning. All words that someone who was happy-go-lucky wouldn't choose to use.
Character 2 on the other hand, is completely different. They use words like: blood, boil, marching, drum, grind. These words are far shorter than character 1's choices. They're also more onomatopoeic, creating louder, more violent sounds. The sentences are shorter and choppier, all things that combine together to give you the impression of a much angrier character.
It's the same parade, just viewed through the eyes of two different characters. If you want to bring your characters alive at the sentence level, dig deep into their personalities and allow those traits to influence your sentence-level choices.
The same is very much true of dialogue.
If, for example, you have a pompous government official, or an equally pompous academic professor. They're likely to have a vocabulary that's drowning in superfluous words. They might use words in day to day conversation like: In addition, however, furthermore, therefore, I'll conditionally agree and on and on.
But if you have a character in a gang, the chances are they'd never use those words, but may have some gang-specific words, or even made up words that only have meaning to gang members.
Likewise, if you have a sarcastic character, they're likely to be witty and throwing verbal take downs at every available opportunity. So when you approach dialogue, in order to make sure your characters are differentiated, consider how their personality could impact the things they say and the words they choose to speak.
If you enjoyed these tips, then you can find stacks more in my latest book, The Anatomy of Prose: 12 Steps to Sensational Sentences.
Writing Good Prose: Member Tips
We asked the ALLi membership what their top tips were for improving their prose. Here's what they said:
“Practice by writing flash fiction. It forces you to be economical with your words and pick the words with the most punch!” H.B Lyne
“Try to cut at least 10% from your word count, whatever it is. Even just doing this with a sample chapter will help you home in on superfluous words and retrain yourself to write more succinctly. It's amazing how many words you can cut without losing sense or clarity, while actually improving the power of the prose overall. Keep speech tags to a minimum. Try taking them all out and only put them back in if it's not clear who is saying what. It's amazing how many are completely unnecessary.” Debbie Young
“Read out aloud. Always.” Julie-Ann Corrigan
“Recognize words you know you use too much, especially verbs. E.g., I know that my characters often smile or raise their eyebrows.” Julie Day
“Replicating natural speech in your prose is the fastest way to connect with your reader, so listen to how other people speak. Not just those you know, but those you come across on public transport, in shops, or in restaurants. Different classes and cultures use language differently. The best way to emulate that is to listen.” Kristina Proffitt
“Find and highlight weak words and crutch words so you can work through and target them, or see how many you have on a page, for instance.” Chrissey Harrison
“Vary sentence structure and length. Stop making all sentences short for “easy reading.” Readers are quite capable of processing more than ten words at a time.” LK Hunsaker
“It's not just prose; it's rhetoric. It should have rhythm and movement. Look to vary your sentence length and structures accordingly. Then think of the simple rhetorical rules of folk tales — repetition for emphasis, letting the reader/auditor do some of the work (objective prose generating subjective emotions), restraint.” Karen Myers
“Look for “throat-clearing” phrases at the beginning of sentences–you probably don't need them. See how often you can cut “that” out of your sentences. If there's an “and” in the middle of your sentence, can you chop it into two shorter sentences?” Jane Steen
“Write in the immediate so it shows and not tells. Don’t be afraid to get feedback from other writers – it’s the editing and layering that brings the prose to life.” Patricia M Osborne
“Use assonance and alliteration and rhythm as in poetry. See Hemingway's story opening: “In the fall the war was always there.” /or the opening of ULYSSES: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Richard Deakin
“For me, writing better prose is often about rhythm and cadence. The way we construct our sentences can convey as much and enliven our writing as much as the words we use. I use music analogies a lot, but this is somewhere it really applies. Think of the basic rhythm of prose like the classic Pixies song. Quiet-loud-quiet. Time to think, to anticipate – explosion – time to reflect. Not at the level of story (though that too) but sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.” Dan Holloway