4 Essentials for Making Your Prose Sharp

Writers spend a lot of time on their concepts. We put a lot of effort into making it unique, avoiding cliché ringing alarm or dream scenes, and giving it high stakes and relatable characters. Those things are great and absolutely, give those things your attention. But there’s another element that deserves more attention than it gets. A writer who masters this always gets my attention in the slush pile.

This element is an art form by itself. It’s often overlooked or not given the attention it deserves. It can make even an average story concept fresh and impacting. Any guesses what it is?

Prose. Whole books exist on the art of mastering prose. Agent Noah Lukeman wrote The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, which is a whole book on just the first page pages of your manuscript, and a big chunk of it deals with prose. Techniques for creating poetic prose with stark imagery and fluid meter exist, of course, and definitely study up on those if you haven’t. Backloading, front-loading, revolving length, consonance, etc., can be really great ways to add suspense and punch to your writing.

There are, however, four simple things you can do to kick the quality of your prose up a notch. These things will help smooth out your writing and help you avoid those issues that so often plague slush pile pages.

1) Lack of contractions. This happens most often in SF/F/paranormal writing. More formal phrasing is often the first route writers take when they want to make an angel/vampire/elf/immortal of any kind sound as if he or she is from another culture. This idea might have worked for the first few who did it, and it still might work if done extraordinarily well, but it’s such a common device now that it isn’t fresh anymore. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes the writing stilted. Even if your character is from another culture,  it doesn’t work. Try saying the lines out loud yourself; if it sounds weird to you, it will to your readers, too. Overly formal writing, especially lack of contractions, pulls me out of the story and makes it that much harder to catch my attention. People think and speak with contractions 99% of the time, so not having them just doesn’t sound natural. If you want to make the voice more formal, find another way to do it.

2) Modifier overload. Adjectives and adverbs are like arms and legs. You probably need one or two, and sometimes they can really help, but more isn’t always better. Modifiers stand out in a sentence; be choosy. An author friend of mine told me her agent says she gets ten adverbs per novel. That’s how choosy you should be. Now, if you’re that choosy, maybe you can do more than ten. The point is, I wonder how many writers are actually aware of how many they’re using. If using words is going to be your career, you have to be aware. Here’s a quick trick to check how you’re doing with modifiers: Take just your first page and highlight how many adverbs and adjectives are on that page. I normally see 15+ modifiers on the first page—way more than a handful per chapter. Of course, the solution is to delete the modifier and use stronger nouns and verbs- “wailed” instead of “cried loudly”, or “hurtle” instead of “run quickly.” I like to keep in mind the principle of “detail that matters.” If it doesn’t matter that the flowers are pink, don’t tell me. They’ll show up as a color in my imagination even if you don’t supply one. But if the tangle of the stems and the withered leaves matter as insight about the protagonist, then by all means, use it. Just be aware, and be intentional.

3) Common phrasing. This is a little more abstract of a concept, but it’s easy to identify in a manuscript. When I read about bright sunny days, fear creeping over someone, half-smiles turning up a corner of someone’s mouth, etc., I get bored because I’ve seen all these things too many times. Cliches are definitely a part of common phrasing, but it’s more just ordinary words being used in an unimaginative way. When I read, I want to see a new perspective on something. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent example of breaking away from the ordinary in showing the main character’s thoughts. Not everyone should go so far as to strike out portions of the text, but I do at least want to think, “hey, this writer sees that man’s shoes a little differently than most people would” or “I’d never thought of describing a street like that.” Language that shows unique thought is almost always gripping. In your characters and your concepts, you want to show us something new, and do that with your wording, too. Give us something new.

4) Word clutter. Modifier overload can be a big part of cluttered prose, but there are a few other elements involved, too. Empty words, words that hardly carry any meaning at all, should be avoided: there, are, is, was, were, it, etc. “There are” or “it was” are particularly common and limp beginnings to a sentence. “That” is another big offender. Empty words clunk along, dragging down the prose and drawing far too much attention to themselves. Use ctrl-F to find these words and uproot them. I once searched for “that” in my first manuscript, and found over 800 uses- about 3 per page. I deleted over half of them. Wordcount-wise, that’s more roughly 2 pages of nothing but the word “that.”

A final thing to watch out for is simply being wordy. Conciseness is at the heart of good prose- packing the meaning into your words. Don’t use a phrase when a word or two mean the same. I don’t mean turn your manuscript into a bullet-pointed list of nouns and verbs, and by all means, use the words necessary. But do be concise, and cut every word you don’t genuinely need.

With prose, less is often more. Be fresh, be concise, be intentional. A well-placed adjective or a neatly-turned phrase can make a sentence stand out, but piling on pretty words creates inflated language and purple prose that readers skim. Starkness and simplicity can make your prose gorgeous, so give them a chance.

Prose Tips: Be the Biggest Loser

Avoiding empty words and cutting  unnecessary words are two fantastic things you can do to immediately improve your writing.

Even if you already do this, check again. Empty and unnecessary words slip by even the most watchful writer. Actively avoiding these kinds of words helps, but searching for them and cutting them out is a normal part of the revision process.  Hunt them down and hack them out.

Empty words include words like there, is, are, this, that, etc. Rather than being content-bearers, these words are grammatical markers carrying little meaning themselves. Starting a sentence with “There are” or “there is” weakens the sentence and makes the writing unwieldy and vague. Cutting out these power-drains in your sentences will noticeably improve your prose. For example: “There was a loaf of bread on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection” can be easily revised to read “A loaf of bread rested on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection.” Adding an action verb can fairly easily solve the issue.

Most uses of the word “that” are unnecessary as well. “The girl waited for the train that she was sure would never come” becomes “The girl waited for the train she was sure would never come.” Use ctrl-F to highlight each use of “that” in your writing, and check to make sure you’re only using it when absolutely necessary. If it seems necessary, see if you can rewrite the sentence so it isn’t.

Cutting unnecessary words is a bit broader topic. Writing good fiction (and nonfiction) requires condensing. Many writers use rambling phrases to say what could be said in a word or two; knocking these out and replacing them with concise, punchy words is necessary to brighten your prose. Of course, many fantastic writers use long, flowing sentences- but every word is necessary and specific. Don’t use more words than you need to say what you mean. “Grover walked slowly over to the counter, picked up a knife from the knife block, and cut back and forth through the loaf of bread” is much better as “Grover strolled over to the counter, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread.”

Right now that sentence reads like an action beat to break up thoughts or dialogue. If the event is an important moment for the character or is meant to carry metaphorical meaning or subtext, much should be cut or rewritten. The sentence probably still contains detail that doesn’t matter, even though it’s condensed. If what matters is the bread being sliced, then we may not need to hear about Grover walking or choosing a knife. The fat needs trimmed. “The knife rasped through the crust, breaking apart the loaf” is a more specific image conveying similar information.

To avoid unnecessary words, think about what has to be conveyed and why- and then say it in as few words as possible. Linking words together to get Grover from point A to point B waters down the prose and simply doesn’t grab your reader. Make sure the words you use are necessary. Keep in mind “necessary” doesn’t deal with simply the information conveyed- tone and voice play into what words are necessary, too.

Don’t let your sentences be candidates for a reality TV weight loss program. Say the same thing in fewer, more specific words, and your sentences will be better off. Avoid words that don’t add meaning. Your readers will notice the difference.

Do you have a favorite editing trick or tool for cutting the fat out of your writing? Tell me about it!