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.