On-the-Nose Prose

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 TheThe 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!


On April 28th, 2011, Squid, writer, wrote:
1- Where do you write? Virginia Woolf famously said it’s important to have a room of one’s own… How do you arrange your supplies, do you write indoors or outdoors? I’d like to know.
2- What supplies do you use? Do you write first drafts longhand, or do you type them? What journals and pens do you use?

And on January 7, 2012, April wrote, I’m curious for more peeks into your life. Perhaps you could divulge a little more in another post? For example, I read the linked post today about writers’ various quirks. What are some of yours? How do your husband, family, and friends react to your quirks, or to your writerly profession in general (both in the past and presently)?


I write anywhere. Well, not in the shower, but in airports, on planes, in doctors’ waiting rooms (routine exams – I’m not sick). Wherever I shlep my computer I write if I have at least fifteen minutes. At home, I write in my office or on my laptop, which lives in the kitchen when it isn’t traveling with me. In the kitchen, it’s on a counter. I could put it on the table, but I once read that it’s not healthy for people to sit for long periods, so when I’m downstairs, I write standing up. The laptop is called Reggie, named after the dog character in The Wish, years before we got our puppy Reggie.

In my office I sit, except when I get up to pace or to stare out the window. The view is lovely no matter the season: stone walls, ancient tall hemlock, antique outhouse (we do have indoor plumbing).

Right now I’m at a poetry retreat waiting for the day’s session to start. I’m in an austere place, a former orphanage on the grounds of a current convent. My room was once an orphan’s bedroom, and it’s small! There’s no desk, only a bed, wooden chair (no cushion), metal gym locker, narrow bed, high dresser, no private bathroom, alas. I’m standing on tiptoes to type on my laptop atop the dresser.

I wonder what my father, who was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage, would think of me being here. Laugh? Roll over in his grave?

The reason I work anywhere is because I trained myself to be able to many years ago after reading Becoming A Writer (middle school and up, I’d guess; the language is old-fashioned but the ideas are modern) by Dorothea Brande. I travel a fair amount, and I don’t want my work to grind to a halt whenever I leave home. People who can  write only when the moon is full and the stars are in a certain alignment don’t finish many books. In an airport, under a giant TV blasting endless headlines, weather, and commercials, I can work. I’m irritated. I wish the thing would shut up, but I work.

I don’t write outdoors much. In winter it’s too cold, obviously. In warm weather there are bugs and beauty. Beauty distracts me!

My desk in my office is a disaster area. I swear when I finish the first draft of used-to-be-called Beloved Elodie, I’m going to clean it up. If I need a pen, I have to feel through the layers to find it. On the desk is a memento of my father, a gift from one of his friends. It looks like a hinged wooden box. On top there’s writing that says, “For the man who has nothing, something to put it in.” The joke is that when you open the box, it turns out to be just a block of wood. There’s no cavity. My father loved the joke.

This is a poem I wrote about my office, imagining it as part of a museum show of offices of kids’ book writers:

My office

stands in for me, part of an exhibition
children wander through. Jason heads
for the wooden skull from Mexico.
Brianna goes, Ew! and Yuck, don’t touch that.
Ella likes the hand-made Christmas-tree ornaments
around my windows: the quilted heart in muted pinks,
edged by brass beads; the striped parrot;
the black paisley angel. Sara picks up the small,
lead Tinker Bell on my desk. Everyone marvels
at my origami swan made from a Tokyo candy wrapper.
Ms. Kramer points out my English usage books.
Outside, somebody calls, Wow!
J.K. Rowling’s office!

        They’re gone. No one paid attention
to my quiescent computer, with a hundred e-mails
locked inside. The children didn’t notice
the hand-hewn, 1790 oak beam or the 1920s
pewter lamp. They glanced past the photograph
of the rosebud with its red petals folding
in on themselves, its shadowy hole, the two
droplets of dew.

When I’m home I don’t listen to music while I work; I prefer silence.

If the writing isn’t going well, I get sleepy, and I have to take frequent breaks, to stretch, answer an email, anything that will wake me up. I like to write while I eat breakfast and lunch and my nightly snack because I can’t sleep and chew at the same time.

I almost always write directly on the computer, but when I use a pen, it’s a cheap gel pen on a steno pad. I don’t like ballpoints because you have to press too hard, and I don’t like Sharpies because the ink bleeds through to the other side of the paper.

I don’t have a big family, but my husband is delightfully proud of my books. When I’m stuck and suffering, David, who is supremely sympathetic, suffers too.

My sister and his sisters and my brothers-in-law like my work. His sister Amy directs a public library, and I went there to speak. Libraries run in David’s blood; Amy and four cousins are or were librarians (one is retired).

I’m trying to think of a quirky quirk for you. You all know from the blog that I don’t plan my books out ahead of time, that sometimes I wander around in a fog for a ridiculously long time. If I thought it would do any good, I would tie a shoe around my neck, touch Reggie’s nose, stand on my head (if I could) for an hour to make the writing flow. How about this? When I’m describing a facial expression, I’ll do an Google images search for the emotion I want to show,  but I’ll also make faces at myself in the mirror.

When I wrote the Disney fairy books I had to keep scale in mind because the fairies are only five inches tall. I had to ask myself, What’s a five-inch creature in relation to a quart of milk, to a caterpillar, a potato, a cherry? To remind myself I kept a five-inch bottle of hair goop on my desk the whole time.

Here are a few prompts:

∙    One of the exercises we did at the poetry retreat was to write a list poem, which is basically a list. So write a list poem about your writing place. To make it work as a poem, the items should be detailed, can be fantastical. Surprises are nice, and it’s good to end with an item that goes against expectation or packs an emotional wallop.

∙    Sometime before next week’s post, write outside your comfort zone. Write in the living room while the family is watching television. Bring your pad to breakfast and write while you chomp down on your pancakes or your high-fiber cereal. See if you can zone out of the distractions, see if the distractions themselves take you somewhere unexpected.

∙    Again, before next week’s post, write in an unaccustomed mode. If you usually write longhand first, go directly to a computer, or vice versa. See if there’s a change in your writing. Does the new method open you up? (You can then return to your usual way, but sometimes it’s good to shake things up.)

∙    Write a chapter in your future memoir about yourself as a writer, whether or not writing will be your career. What got you started? Write about your real past, but also imagine the future. What has been a turning point or what will be? Describe your greatest past triumph and your greatest upcoming one.

∙    If you like, post your own writing quirks here.

Have fun, and save what you write!