7 Steps to Improving Your Prose

If you want a ‘how to’ book on writing a compelling story, there are plenty out there. They talk about character development, scene structure, creating believable settings. It’s a harder job to find a simple guide to improving your prose.

One book which fits the bill is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

It was recommended to me a few years ago by Nik Perring, and I love it because it showed me I could ‘learn’ to write good prose. It doesn’t have to be all inspiration from the muse. There are techniques. Knowing that made me keen to discover more.

So I’ve dug out a first draft of my novel, Fury, to find examples of seven useful things I’ve learned:-

1. Too Much Information – don’t cram everything into one sentence

“He’d just got back inside when he heard a mournful sound on the autumn winds.”

I took out the action and gave the description its own sentence.

“A mournful sound clung to the autumn winds.”

2. Be Decisive– you don’t need those qualifiers

Such hypocrisy, Slav wanted to spit just thinking about it.

Look out for words like, just, nearly, and almost. Nine times out of ten they can be cut. The final version has more clarity.

“It was such hypocrisy, he wanted to spit.”

3. Trust your Reader – you don’t need to state the obvious

Below is a sentence from a scene which had already been established as taking place in a barn.

“Fear and panic still clung to the stifled air in the barn.”

So I didn’t need to mention that the air is in the barn.

“Fear and panic still clung to the stifled air.”

It’s a hard habit to crack, but you can train your eye to spot them.

4. Use Strong Verbs – so you can cull those adverbs

A really good example of this is ‘pull’. You’d be amazed how often you use a little word like that. Good job there are so many alternatives – yank, tug, and grab to name but a few.

5. Be Brave with your Adjectives – or lack of them

It’s hard to let them go, I know. But it’s for their own good – and yours. In the end I resorted to highlighting every single one to see how bad the situation was. My manuscript looked like it had caught the measles. Here’s one example where I cut.

“Shattered planks lay scattered on the hay-strewn floor.”

“Shattered planks lay scattered across the floor.”

6. Repetition – which includes syntax

It isn’t just words you find yourself repeating, it can be syntax as well.

In the extract below I’ve used the same structure in two consecutive sentences.

“Warm stew spilled onto the stone flags, the smell of cooked meat teasing the wolf’s nostrils. Maria turned and fled, the door knocking against the latch behind her.”

The hard part is learning to spot it. It’s easy enough to change when you do.

“Warm stew spilled onto the stone flags, the smell of cooked meat teasing the wolf’s nostrils. Maria turned and fled. The door knocked against the latch behind her.”

7. Don’t Look Back– stay in the present

It’s always useful to look at the word ‘had’. Is it absolutely necessary? Even in flashback it can sometimes be cut, or contracted.

“He remembered, when he was very young, before his father had taken to drinking. He’d woken up Christmas morning and found a present in his boot. Papa had given him a little angel. 

Slav hugged his Papa and they’d sat by the fire turning the spit and watching the crackling brown.”

Or is the action placed in the past unnecessarily? Can you find a way to show things in the here and now?

“The rattle of wood had woken him.”

“The rattle of wood woke him.”

A Question

Are there any techniques you’ve picked up along the way which you’d like to share?

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15 thoughts on “7 Steps to Improving Your Prose

  1. Great and insightful post as always, Wendy.

  2. Guy says:

    Great post, Lorrie, and some very sensible advice. Indeed I think I’ll print this out and leave it on my desk! :o)

  3. I always learn so much about the craft here. Thank you!

  4. Peter Hughes says:

    A really useful article! Currently writing my first novel on my blog, so it’s been very useful. 🙂

  5. Thanks! Finding sites and books about developing story and character is like finding a tourist with a camera–abundant and everywhere, but a detailed article about prose is rare. Thank you for sharing this!

  6. Philip Lewis says:

    Thank you, Like you I have been staring out of my office window for far too many years. This year I hope to do something about it. I think for me creativity and imagination abound but it’s structure and focus that is lacking. My mind seems to be going in a million different directions all at once. Any thoughts on ways I might get this under control.

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