Welcome to Episode 3 in the Journey of Prose. If you’re behind, be sure to check out Episode 1 and Episode 2.
Today’s focus is knowing when to worry about prose. Unless you’re a professional writer who’s been writing everyday for years (and knows what is considered publishable writing), then I wouldn’t suggest worrying about prose the first draft you spit out. The critical aspects of your writing is your voice, your creativity and writing from your heart. The first draft should be full of errors and “bad writing”, because it’s about the content, not the presentation.
I think one of the first mistakes writers do when they first start out is get done with their first draft and think “the hard part is over!” It can be quite the wakeup call when a writer learns that the draft most likely is the easiest, fastest, and most painless part of the process. I know people who can spit out 5k words a day or even more without breaking a sweat. But however long it took to write it, it should take maybe twice, or even three times as long to edit.
The reason is because once you start getting into the editing process, you’re analyzing not just prose but sniffing out plot holes, scenes that don’t push the story along and erroneous information that just needs to be cut. I just want to focus on the prose portion of editing, since really I think it’s the part that can take the longest.
Let’s divvy up how to approach prose-editing in three levels. Beginner – Middle – Advanced
1. Beginner – Worry about Prose Last With Outside Help
When just starting out, prose is not something that’s going to come naturally. There’re going to be a ton of adverbs, places where you tell instead of show, and laundry lists of adjectives for apparently no reason. Just accept the first draft as the good, bad, and ugly that it is.
But whatever you do, don’t expect to do the rewrite on your own. You need someone else who knows more than you to look at your work and tell you what’s wrong with it. I don’t mean your sister (unless she’s a professional editor), and I don’t mean your friends because they’ll just want to tell you how great you are. And you should be disappointed if that’s the kind of feedback you get, because it’s not going to help your work get better.
If you have the funds, the fastest way to shape up poor prose is by hiring a professional editor. Do your research and find an Editor with an impressive portfolio of published authors. There are a ton of self-proclaimed freelance editors out there, don’t be suckered into one of these schemes just because it’s cheap. At best, you’re going to get someone who mildly knows the craft and will have mild feedback to give you in return for your hard-earned money. At worst, you’re going to get someone who’ll disappear after the funds have been transferred.
A good resource is Reedsy, kind of the LinkedIn of the self-publishing and Freelance Editor world.
If you don’t have funds to spend on your writing endeavors, have no fear, that’s not a problem. Whether you hire an editor or go the secondary route of critique partners, the only difference is the amount of time and effort YOU need to put in. And earning that money in the first place took time and effort, so if you look at it that way, both routes require the same amount of commitment.
The second route is joining critique groups. Usually you get a mixed bag of amateurs and professionals from this type of setting, but with enough effort you will find people who know more than you do and can help you with your craft. The catch is that you’re expected to return critiques. In some way, this is an invaluable experience. You can learn how to improve poor prose just by editing someone else’s work. You’re not emotionally attached and when you experience someone who just won’t listen to logic, it’ll help you realize if perhaps you’re guilty of that yourself.
If you’re unsure what kind of critique group to join, just try out a few and see what works for you. Be this an in-person critique group or an online one. I personally use Scribophile.com, an excellent resource for amateur and professional writers. There are others out there but I’ve yet to find one that works better. I also use an in-person workshop with professional authors that attend, but the downside for that is they only meet twice a month, so it’s excruciatingly slow.
Notice for the beginner level, I don’t even suggest self-editing. It’s just not a good idea. You need someone to point out what mistakes you’re doing, since it’s most likely you have a handful of favorite errors that you’ll just keep doing over and over again until you retrain your brain to structure the sentences differently.
2. Middle – Iron out Prose during the Revision, supplemented by Outside Help
Once you’ve been around the block for a while, and you’ll know when you’re at the next level, it’s time to start your self-edits when it comes to prose. I still recommend focusing on prose only on a revision level since if you try to do it during the draft you’ll start to worry more about prose and less about content, and that’s not what you want to do.
I still recommend getting an extra set of eyes on the work since everyone is impossibly dense when it comes to finding even the most simple flaws in their own work. You may think you’ve ironed out your prose to a high sheen, but all it takes is one other person to look at it to realize how wrong you were. (Speaking from personal experience here!)
3. Advanced – Keep Good Prose as you Write the Draft, Use Beta Readers for Final Check
Now, once you’ve been writing for a really long time, you can start to know the rules of prose so well that even when you’re writing the draft you start to nip mistakes in the bud. You even know what you want to focus on, so you incorporate beautiful prose along with your developing premise. Even so, a first draft is a first draft and should be treated as such. The first time words hit the paper is not a finished piece, so be sure to get either beta readers, critique partners or an editor to give it a nice comb through for typos and other mistakes.
Even if you’re not really at the “advanced” level, I do have a trick I recommend for making the revisions easier. When I’m writing a draft, I start first by hand. And as I go, I will already recognize what words or sentences just aren’t going to work. But instead of trying to fix them right there, I just underline it and continue on with my draft. Then, when it’s time to type it out on the computer, I can do a nice first revision with the rough points already marked. I just follow the guide I’ve made for myself and rephrase or rewrite anything that has an underline. So far, it’s made my first revisions pretty successful and it’s a technique I’m quite happy with. I recommend trying it even if you don’t like writing by hand.
If you’re having difficulty with some of the prose concepts and want to get a head start on studying what to look for, I strongly suggest this book on prose and powerful chapters written by a literary agent.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
I also recommend the emotion thesaurus. It can be daunting coming up with creative gestures to describe how characters are feeling. This is a resource I use every day. I recommend the $5 kindle version rather than the paperback since you can click on an emotion and it’ll take you to that chapter of gestures.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression
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