Last year I ran a blog series called the Journey of Prose. This was successful mostly because I don’t think a lot of bloggers focus on the writing craft itself. Why is that? Because it’s difficult and controversial. There’s no real right or wrong answer when it comes to good and bad prose, but there are some general guidelines which will determine where you stand.
When someone is reading your work, maybe just a beta reader or a friend, they might not be able to express what they don’t like about your story. That’s because they aren’t aware of the technical differences between books they love to read and yours. That difference 99% of the time is going to be prose.
Novel Writing is its Own Language
Novel Writing is the written expression of language to tell a story. That means it’s not sitting around a campfire telling a tale, and if you write that way it may or may not be successful because rules can be broken, but generally it’s a specific method of communication unlike anything else in our society. And if you’ve not read many books, how on earth are you supposed to know this secret language of novel writing? The only way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it, so start reading and start reading now. Here is a blog post on reading to write to get you started.
The language of novel writing has its own rules, just like any other language. There are going to be certain ways to form sentences to get your meaning across and it can’t be like a textbook, without color or art form. And it certainly can’t be something you’d blather on to a friend, because real life dialogue is filled with irrelevant statements, repetitive sentences, and awkward pauses. Writing a book needs to be one thing above all else, efficient.
Word Choice Efficiency
By efficient, I mean each word in the story has a specific purpose. A reader is spending their precious time to be entertained and easily envision the world. Filler words or weak nouns are going to make them feel cheated and confused.
Think about one of your favorite books. If you’ve zipped through that book in a day, and went “Wow! That was the best book ever!” I hope you now realize for the 3 hours you spent reading (if you’re a fast reader), the author probably spent 3 years not just writing, but perfecting, that book. It was easy to read because it was designed to be that way.
Prose is the last edit that’s going to happen when an author is writing their book. There are a bunch of developmental edits that should take place before prose becomes a concern. After all, what’s the point in icing a cake before its baked?
I’m sure there are authors out there who write out their first draft, and immediately try to shop their story. They may imagine: “Agents will recognize if this is a story they’ll like. An editor can help me revise for the nit-picky stuff.” If that’s you, time to turn over a new leaf. From the words of Senior Literary Agent Paula Munier in her recent book, Writing With Quiet Hands, literary agents want a book you can bounce a dime off of and is ready to rock the reader’s world. They don’t want a fixer-upper. Writing craft is probably the first thing they’re going to look for, and if it’s not there, you’re going to get a form rejection and never know if they would have actually been interested in your story.
When it’s time for a prose edit, depending on the quality of your draft, it should take at least half the time it took to write the draft, if not more. (This is purely for the prose edit. Developmental edits should generally take three times as long as it took to write the draft.)
I recommend doing these three prose edits to get you started. Try to spend some serious time on this. The more it’s polished, the easier the manuscript will be to sell. Imagine it’s a diamond, and you’re cutting and polishing so that it sparkles like one of those Zale’s rings you see on TV.
Three Prose Edits
To get you started in your prose edit, I’m recommending three run-through revisions you should do. These are just a bare minimum, and I’d recommend schooling yourself on prose before attempting a prose edit. Recommended books would be the already mentioned Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier, as well as the classic Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and the modern Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Though I’d recommend these as a guide and your main focus of learning to come from reading great books that have already paved the way for writing expectations in your genre.
Prose Edit 1: Filler Words
This is probably one of the fastest and most helpful sweeping edits you can do for your prose. Open up the search box and start finding your overused and filler words. You’ll either be able to simply delete, which if you can do that without changing the meaning of the sentence it’s certainly an unnecessary and inefficient word, or you’ll need to strengthen a weak noun or modifier. Quick example: “little bird” should be “finch.”
- Suddenly (It’s a lot more sudden if you just say what is happening)
- Very (This usually is pointing out a weak modifier)
- Almost (Do or do not, there is no try)
- Slightly (Be confident in your descriptions)
- That (This is a biggie. Bet your word count falls by 500 words just taking this out)
- As you know (If everyone knows it, why is this being said?)
- Not (This means you should have used a contraction. Unless your characters are British, or Yoda, they should be using contractions.)
- Little (weak)
- Big (weak)
- Large (weak)
- Up (He stood up. Guess what, you can also simply say “he stood”)
- Down (He sat down, or, he sat!)
- Any filter words such as See/Heard/Felt/Realized/Watch/Look. Simply describe the scene. We don’t need to know your character is seeing/hearing/feeling because being in their point of view already tells us that.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll start to spot unnecessary and filler words on your own. Make sure every word in your sentence is there to convey meaning, and isn’t simply taking up space and killing your readers’ enjoyment. A simple rule is if a word is taken out and the meaning of the sentence didn’t change, it shouldn’t be there.
Prose Edit 2: Boring/Irrelevant Information
This one is a bit harder to spot. When storytelling, the only information the reader wants to know is why should I care about this character, and what is going on now that is developing the story? Anything else is boring information that they will probably want to glaze over. Here is a list of boring information you’ll want to try and avoid.
- Excessive Narrator Monologue
- Those times when the narrator is staring out a window just thinking about life. This can go on for pages just talking about their family, their dreams, or just what they had for breakfast. Keep such musing short, or altogether absent. Most of the time you as the author may need to know this information to make a cohesive story, but the reader doesn’t need to be privy to every detail.
- A novice writing mistake is to describe every single movement going on. The character walks to the door, looks at it, turns the knob, steps across the threshold, takes a breath, their heart beats twice… Did we really need to know any of that?
- Flashbacks/Remembering Past Events
- I hate flashbacks with a passion. If something is so important that the narrator needs to take us back in time, maybe the novel should have started earlier and described these events to us live. Time jumps are confusing, disorienting, and lazy. In the case of the main character remembering something, the narration will usually be in the past or past perfect tense, requiring a lot of “had” and “was” which can also become annoying to read.
- Laundry List Descriptions
- Unless you’re writing Daughter of Smoke and Bone and you’re trying to help the reader picture a Chimera, don’t go on for a whole paragraph describing what a character looks like. Focus on one powerful image, such as “she leaves the house without mascara.“(Source: P. Munier.)
Do you see what these key points have in common? They are all things which don’t move the plot forward, but rather give the reader unnecessary information. Prose is not just about what you say, but how you say it. (I’ve been waiting forever to use that line!)
Prose Edit 3: Repetitive Words and Information
There are two major forms of being repetitive in writing. One is simply using the same word twice or more within the same paragraph or page. If you say the “wind rushed,” you shouldn’t follow the next sentence with “she rushed.” It’ll become bothersome and annoying for the reader and make your writing seem lazy.
The second type of repetitiveness is giving the same information twice. Maybe a description repeats itself, or more commonly a plot point is brought up multiple times. Sometimes this is on purpose, but try to give your audience some credit. They’re smart people, and you don’t need to keep pounding the same information over and over again. Say it once, and move on.
That wraps up my 3 prose edits, and be sure not to stop here. There are so many more!
My nemesis in prose is the overused word. When I was writing my fantasy angel novel in a victorian setting, I had to do a sweep edit to take out the word “arches.” It was insanely overused!
What words do you find being overused in your work?