Tighten Up Your Prose: A Quick How-To Guide

You wrote a story? Great job! Some people don’t even get that far as a writer. 

But now that you have a first draft, it’s time to work on making it a clean piece of art that will entice readers.

“How do I do that?” I hear you say.

Well! I’m glad you asked! With my patented style guide you can make your fans drool from their eyes with the sheer grace of your delightful….

Okay, I’m done with this shtick. In all seriousness, I would like to share with you a list of basic guidelines that can help you make the narration of your story a bit tighter and easier for your readers.

Now, notice I said “guidelines” and not rules. This is because I’m of the mindset art has no real rules, just techniques. Some of the greatest books, movies, paintings, etc. were great because they ignored the status quo. I’m aware “fuck the rules” is not exactly a new sentiment, but I thought I should reiterate it here, less someone spam me in the comments for trying to stifle creativity.

So now that I’ve gotten all the formalities out of the way, here are the guidelines to fixing up your prose.

#1: Remove the Devil Words

Okay, I’ll admit, I made up the term “Devil Words.” But what I’m referring to is all too real. There are certain words in creative writing you simply do not use. No, not swears–writers love to use those. What I mean is there are words that unless you have a definite, and purposeful reason for using them, they should remain out of your manuscript.

What are the Devil Words? They are: “very,” “then,” and “surprisingly.”

I’ll explain why for each.

“Very”: If you’re using the word “very” in a story, it’s usually a sign you don’t have a better word for what you’re trying to describe. People in stories are not “very sad” they are “depressed,” “devastated,” or “melancholy” (depending on the circumstances of course). The only time “very” is okay is in phrases like “with her very soul,” which is using a different definition of the word.

“Then”: This one is a bit tricky, because there are a lot of times where you need the word “then” for the sentence to make sense. It has grammatical purposes, but all too often people will use it unnecessarily, stringing together a run-on sentence that looks like this:

“Then he picked up the mace, and then handed it to his knight, who then proceeded to walk out into the ring, carrying it like it weighed nothing.”

Now, I admit even without all the uses of “then,” that sentence is not great– but it would still be better without so many.

“Surprisingly”: Paradoxically, this word actual makes what’s occurring less surprising. The phrase “all of a sudden” does this as well. Don’t tell the reader what’s happening is surprising, just surprise them.

#2: Vary Your Vocabulary

Repetition gets boring, and perhaps the worst sin you can do as a writer is to bore your readers. And while it is true there are words that occur hundreds of times in writing simply because our language works that way, it is important to avoid overusing more specific words. What I’m referring to are mostly adjectives. Because, I’m sure in your head two different objects the character saw were “sparkly” but the reader is going to notice– even if only on a subconscious level– that you just reused a word, and get annoyed. Additionally, complex/long words like “juxtaposition” and “conscientious” are lovely in their own right, but use them more than once in a story and you’re going to come off as pretentious.

#3: Kill The Passive Voice

Unless your character is extremely docile (Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye is a good example), the passive voice makes your story have less impact and can make the reader care less about what’s happening. Now, going over all the parts of this particular rule would require an entirely separate article, but thankfully there is already one by the awesome Grammar Girl. So go check it out!

#4: Cut Out Unnecessary Reiterations 

“Jimmy walked in, slammed his hand on the desk, and took a moment to breathe heavily through clenched teeth. He was angry.”

Again, not a great sentence, and a bit over-dramatic, but you see my point. That last part is almost entirely useless, as the reader can clearly tell Jimmy is angry. There’s an old axiom among writers which is “show, don’t tell,” and this is simply an extension of that. Readers are smarter than we give them credit for, and if you successfully show them something, there is no need to tell them afterwards.

Special thanks to: Collin Pearman, Dylan Alexander, Jerry Banfield, Michael The Comic NerdPulsatilla Pratensis, and Zeony.

Did you like the article? Dislike? Tell me about it in the comments. I would love to hear your opinions! If interested in specific articles, or want to write as a guest, you can message me at scifibrandonscott@gmail.com. If you want to help keep this blog going, consider becoming my patron at https://www.patreon.com/coolerbs. Thanks for reading!


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