Just letting you know: The snow date for my talk in Brewster, NY, is this coming Sunday, February 3rd, and it looks like the weather is planning to cooperate. Details are here on the website.
On December 7, 2018, Bethany wrote, I suffer with being too on-the-nose. I feel like I just say they ‘walked’ or whatever without using any nicer words to make good prose.
Which reminds me, any tips for good prose?
I wrote back, Can you say more about what you’re looking for in terms of tips and good prose?
Bethany explained: I guess I just feel like my prose isn’t as pretty or nice as some other people’s prose. E.g., their prose is: “The truck leaped down the dirt road, leaving a cock’s tail of dust blooming behind it,” or something like that and mine is more like: “The truck drove down the road, and smoke came up behind it.” A minor exaggeration, but I hope you see what I mean. Is this a matter of editing, and if so, what’s the best thing to do to fix it?
Melissa Mead wrote, I wish I knew where to find a movie that I watched in school. Basically, it showed a student writing about a field trip to the airport. They’d written “The engines made a loud sound. The jet went down the runway very fast, and took off.”
It highlighted “made a loud sound” Then it superimposed various images over the moving jet: a lion roaring, people screaming, etc. Then it did the same for “went very fast”: a gunshot, a sprinter, etc.
Then they chose the words that seemed to fit the best, and ended up with “Engines shrieking, the jet raced down the runway and took off.”
I think it helps. I still remember it after 35-40 years, anyway.
Melissa Mead, I wish I’d gone to your school! What a great way to present lively writing!
Bethany, just saying, a “cock’s tail of dust” is a terrific image! So I wouldn’t knock your prose.
Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” I love this quote!
I’ve said this before on the blog: that nouns and verbs pack more power than any other part of speech. In Melissa Mead’s example, the verbs get most of the revision. Made a loud sound becomes shrieking, and went very fast becomes raced. I’d argue that lifted or soared would have been better than took.
The revision is also shorter, eleven words to seventeen, a big drop. So, often, concision is a part of fine prose. In the original, we see made a loud sound replaced by one word, likewise went very fast.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a jewel of concision, and I recommend it, as I have before. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, but the sentences are oh-so elegant. I’ve read them over and over again, just to savor them. And the book offers guidance in how to achieve such beauty.
Then there’s sentence variety. The two sentences in the Melissa Mead’s original each start with The—The engines and The jet–which creates a static feel. The revision is one complex sentence that starts Engines shrieking.
But, of course, if there were a second sentence that began, Air-conditioning humming... the revision would feel static, too. We want to mix it up: different beginnings; short sentences next to long, single-clause sentences following many-clause ones.
Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity. Think of Hemingway! Think of Elmore Leonard! (Both high school and up–and each unlike the other.)
Straightforward is good. We don’t want to get so fancy that the reader can’t understand us. In prose that isn’t experimental, clarity trumps everything else. Also, I don’t want to read writing that calls attention to its high-flown verbiage. I want prose to get out of the way of the story. Maybe on the third reading, when I’m a little less enthralled, I can admire the beautiful sentences that underlie the urgent storytelling.
When I finish a manuscript, I always have to trim. In the process, I pay particular attention to my adverbs and adjectives, especially the ones that weaken, like a little, somewhat, half, almost. Even very, which seems to be strengthening, often isn’t. Sometimes we need these modifiers, but most of the time what we need more is to be bold. I’ve mentioned here before the frequent unnecessariness of the modifier could, as in she could see. If she could and did see, then she saw.
Similes and metaphors can liven up prose. My MC’s brother in the expulsion book is a tad unpleasant. He has mean names for his siblings, like he calls a sister Nut-cheeked Squirrel, and he calls my MC Unblinking Lizard. In revenge–but not out loud–she calls him Ugly Camel Head. This is metaphorical language, but it isn’t lofty, and it does double-duty by suggesting what these characters look like. We can think of metaphorical comparisons when we write description, but I don’t think we should strain for them. If they come, they come. We can help them flow in by reading writers whose prose is chock full of them, and then we can imitate, as I recommended recently in my post on style.
We can pay attention to the sounds of the words we write, something that’s become easier for me since attending poetry school. We can add alliteration and assonance (dig the four a’s in a row just now!) if we feel they’ll shine up our prose–or we can eliminate them if they annoy us.
We can think about rhythm, too. To get a rhythm going, we can deliberately repeat sentence structure and particular words. This is a technique to use sparingly.
When I’m not happy with a paragraph or even a sentence, I copy it into my notes and copy it again to work on. I may rearrange clauses to make them more natural. If I notice a stream of short sentences, I’ll work on making a few of them compound–or vice versa. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll start over. All the while, if this is a first draft, I’ll be thinking, Why am I doing this now? I may cut the whole thing. And then I keep at it!
When a word doesn’t nail what I’m going for, I open a thesaurus in my browser. I like Power Thesaurus, but Thesaurus.com is good, too, and I’m sure there are others. In the thesaurus, I may go through page after page, and I may click on a synonym to see what its synonyms are.
Sparkling prose uses the active voice. There were twelve angry men in the jurors’ room. is passive. Twelve angry men congregated in the jurors’ room. is active. I hope you agree that it’s stronger. I pay attention to my use of there when I’m revising.
I was once, long ago, reading somewhere about grade level in writing. This learned paper said that prepositions push up grade level. Okay. That may be true, because a reader has to be a better reader to hack her way through prepositional gunk. I copied this sentence: I want to de-layer the organization–creating a closer day-to-day relationship and clearer line of sight for myself into the business. from this website: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186. Three prepositions. I think the sentence means: I need to see what’s going on. We should avoid language that obfuscates–or, to say it as it should be said, We should write so that the reader knows what we mean.
Two howevers on these last two points: Writing rules are meant to be broken when breaking them improves our writing. And it is great fun to write a character who speaks in endless, convoluted sentences–but we can’t let him talk too much!
Finally, my writing is sensory, and I like that in other writers, too. I want to be in any scene I’m reading, hearing the engine shriek, seeing it lift off, feeling the hot wind it creates, smelling the gasoline. As we write, we can keep asking ourselves if we’re bringing in the senses. Will our reader be able to see, hear, smell, taste, touch what’s going? We don’t want to overburden every moment with all of these, but we should keep them in mind.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Write dialogue between the queen’s Third Minister for Royal Orange Squeezing and a farmer. The farmer has a complaint, and the minister doesn’t want anyone to be blamed. The farmer’s words are knives, but the minister’s mouth produces only fog.
∙ Pick a paragraph from a magazine or newspaper, basically from anywhere, but not written by you. Rewrite it at least three times. Make it better. Make it worse. Write it in bureaucratese. Put it in the voice of your cat if he could speak.
∙ In your WIP, find a place where you’ve just introduced a character and are describing him physically. Think of a metaphor or simile to bring your description to life–an animal, mineral, vegetable, bit of architecture that he resembles.
Have fun, and save what you write!