Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

 

Simplify Your Writing

sunset-trees-mistOne of the best ways to have less clutter in your writing is to simplify it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a Spartan and write sparingly like Hemingway. You can use rich language like Jacqueline Carey but apply that language with purpose. While Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart contains rich narrative description, the language is appropriate for the time period and always portrays motion. But you wouldn’t use that “voice” and narrative style in a contemporary thriller, say.

Fluid writing lies at the basis of uncluttered prose. The seven suggestions below will help.

Reduce Extraneous Words 

When constructing a scene, it is wise to pay attention to cadence, rhythm, number of phrases or clauses and general length of sentences. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”) that slow down narrative. Try reading your sentences out loud; this practice often helps you to find the “clutter”.

Use Active & Powerful Verbs

Active verbs are the key to vivid writing; and, ironically, to uncluttered prose. The very choice of active verbs helps you minimize the use of clutter-words. Consider, these two example paragraphs, which describe the same scene.

Example A: Joe walked slowly into the room. His lip curled in disgust as he looked around the room. There were empty beer bottles all over the filthy floor that was covered with stains and garbage and there was a naked couple in the bed. They were almost buried under the rumpled covers. They now struggled to get up and Joe saw the big man staring up at him angrily.

Example B: Joe sidled into the room, lip curling at the stench of empty beer bottles and garbage strewn on the stained floor. A naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets. The man reared up and glared at Joe.

Example A contained 68 words while Example B contained only 41 words. It is obvious which paragraph is more vivid.

Cut Down the Words in Your Paragraphs

Cut down your words by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, and you will add others later in your second round of edits. Find the most efficient way to say what you mean.

Reduce Redundancy

The introductory sentence of a narrative paragraph is often paraphrased unnecessarily in the very next sentence, as though the writer didn’t trust the reader to get it the first time. Say it once and say it right the first time.

Embrace Anglo Saxon over Latin Words

For every three syllable word of Latin origin there is a simple Anglo Saxon word. Consider these examples:

 

Latinate                                   Anglo Saxon

 

assassinate                            kill

emotion                                  feeling

diminutive                              small

consternation                        fear

juvenile                                   young

originate                                 begin

masticate                                chew

prevaricate                             lie

abbreviate                              shorten

perspire                                  sweat

assuage                                  soothe

emancipate                           free

diffident                                 shy

Latinate words slow down narrative and often arise from supercilious luciferous logolepsy; if overused, such effulgent emanations may render your promulgations cumbersome and will likely exacerbate acataleptic obfuscation and promote embulalia.

The simpler Anglo Saxon term is often more visceral in both meaning and sound. Consider the first example: “kill” evokes a much more powerful and immediate response than “assassinate”. And how about those “f” words for sexual intercourse? Fornication has a whole other nuance than its Anglo Saxon four-letter cousin. I’m not advising that you avoid Latinisms altogether. Latinate words, when used judiciously—and sparingly—provide cadence, lyricism and points of interest in narrative. If you use them sparingly and purposefully, they provide color and texture to your narrative landscape. The key—as always—is achieving a balance.

I once suffered from luciferous logolepsy… and profusely overused Latinate syllogisms, particularly in my line of work as a scientist. When I saw the light, not only did my fiction benefit; but my consulting reports and technical papers were more joyfully read by my clients.

Balancing Show and Tell

Let the characters and scenes speak for themselves through action and dialogue, rather than using narration to explain what happens. Embracing this way of writing may be the single most effective way to reduce clutter and enhance the vividness of your writing at the same time. While “showing” may in fact add more words than simple “telling”, the way it is read (mostly in the form of action) makes up for the added words. Telling also has its place in narrative; for instance, when you wish to let the reader know about an event or action that you do not want to describe in vivid detail. Simple and succinct telling works effectively as transitional narrative, serving as a bridge for critical showing scenes.

Don’t Overload Your Metaphors

Some novice writers fall into the trap of using metaphor overload (some call it “purple prose”). Overuse of metaphor diverts the reader from the story with “clever” turn-of-phrase and distract them from the most important words in the writer’s toolkit—verbs. Here’s an example from one of my favourite shows, Farscape:

Example 1: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming like the staccato percussion of a demon frag cannon on his wounded soul.

If you eliminate the simile here’s what you get:

Example 2: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming.

Removal of the simile activates the verb and focuses the reader’s attention on John’s visceral reaction. Which version is more powerful? If the verb is powerful enough, you don’t need to pad it with metaphor. The verb sunset path trees“slamming” already provides what the metaphor suggests, making it redundant. If the writer has set everything up properly then the reader will provide the context. In the Farscape example, if the writer hasn’t already established a precedent for John’s reaction, she is missing more than appropriate metaphor.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.