Simple ways to improve your prose, tighten sentence structure and banish cliches, adverbs, adjectives and flowery descriptions from your narrtive.
10 Ways to Improve Your Prose
Many new writers tend to pick up bad writing habits over the years. A simple list of rules can help you polish your prose, tighten sentence structure and help you banish those adjectives, adverbs and clichés from your writing.
1. Don’t over-describe. Some writers wrongly assume they have to point out everything to their reader, resulting in a tendency to over-describe what is happening within a scene. This means full descriptions of characters, what they’re wearing, what car they drive, the type of wine they’re drinking, the make of clothes, etc. The idea is not to overload your reader, but to make them think by planting little snippets of description here and there in your narrative. This is also true of active scenes, when too much active description kills the narrative and indicates there are too many adjectives cluttering your sentences. Take this example:
The motorbike sped out of control, skidding violently across the ground, spinning and rolling intensely. The driver screamed in pain, the agony filling his body as he was flung from the bike like a rag doll, the pain burning like fire throughout him, making his body shudder uncontrollably and viciously…
The reader doesn’t need to know every detail possible to understand what is happening, when in fact just a few sentences will suffice:
The motorbike sped out of control, skidded and flung the driver into the road. The driver screamed as slivers of pain burned through his body…
2. Avoid pretentious prose. It’s unnecessary unless you’re deliberately being literary, so cut out the flowery descriptions and keep it simple. You don’t have to impress your reader with fancy, obscure words which can detract from the overall effect of the piece. Simplicity counts.
3. Cliché is one of those entities you should avoid like the plague…now there’s an example of a well-worn cliché, the kind you should avoid. Cliché refers to an overused word or phrase, but it can also refer to stereotypical characters or even ideas. Think of the hero that saves the world in the nick of time, then rescues the girl and they live happily ever after. That entire premise is a cliché. Originality is what makes an interesting read, so try to avoid clichéd phrases, plots and characters and look at new ways to say what you want.
4. Retain a sense of accuracy with your descriptions. ‘The sky was an ocean’ is often used by writers in the mistaken belief that they are likening the colour and vastness the ocean to the sky, however the ocean is not like the sky and is rarely blue; it ranges in colour from green, dark blue, grey, turquoise or dirty brown. Use sentences like that and you could end up falling prey to cliché without even realising. Every sentence should be clear and should convey a feeling of accuracy.
5. Avoid passive verbs – they tend to slow down the narrative. Verbs can be either passive or active. Active verbs mean the active subject is doing something. For example, “he watered the plant”. A passive verb on the other hand is used when something is being done to the subject of the sentence. i.e. “The plant was being watered”.
They’re not always easy to spot and it may take some practice to weed them from your writing; but that’s not to say that some passive verbs are bad. Grammar checkers are generally helpful with passive sentences; however, there will be occasions when passive sentences are unavoidable, just make sure your MS isn’t cluttered with too many of them.
6. Avoid too many double adjectives. They might seem like a good idea until you read what you’ve written. Often the second adjective tends to weaken the first. For example:
“She leaned over the thick white balustrade of the stairs, the smooth, silky blue material of her dress catching on a sharp nail poking from the wood”.
Not only is the sentence long, it’s also clunky. By deleting some adjectives, you can tighten and improve this sentence. E.g., “She leaned over the balustrade, the smooth material of her dress catching on a nail”. While adjectives can be useful in moderation, try to let your nouns and verbs do most of the work.
7. Try to avoid adverbs, especially in dialogue. They describe how something is doing and usually means adding ‘ly’ to a word. Instead of enhancing your writing, adverbs act as beacons which shout ‘I’m an amateur!’ For example:
“Help me,” she shouted desperately.
“I’m so happy,” he said lovingly.
Scenes should be realistic enough for your reader to understand the emotions intended without needing the adverb to reinforce it. You cannot avoid all adverbs in narrative, and it’s not incorrect to do so, but certainly try to keep them out of dialogue.
8. At school you were probably told to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction like And or But. There is no written rule on this, but writing is an art form, a subjective device, and is therefore open to interpretation. Conjunctions are particularly useful for short, staccato sentences, to add nuance and a sense of rhythm.
“They remained still, trapped. And the darkness crept around them…”
9. Sentence rhythm allows an undiluted flow of words and it also offers individuality and a sense of voice. Rhythm is important in narrative in order to avoid monotonous, dull writing. The best way to do that is to vary your sentences. For instance, short sentences are strong, and particularly useful in action scenes to speed up the narrative. Longer sentences have the ability to slow the reader, especially after fast action scenes, and this allows a more reflective voice. Your prose should naturally speed up and slow down. If you don’t, you’re likely to slip into a monotonous, boring rhythm.
10. Avoid too much use of the word ‘was’ in the narrative. ‘There was a bunch of flowers on the desk’ or ‘there was a sound from the hallway’. Be a little more creative. Too much use of ‘was’ means you are telling rather than showing.