Sunday, November 10, 2013

Strengthening Your Prose

As writers, we enjoy that moment when we sit down to our computers and let our fingers wander across the keyboard to create that perfect story that we believe is going to be loved by all. But then, after that story or novel is out there and finished that first time through, we're stuck with the daunting task of the big "R" --

Don't you wish you looked
this good when you're
ticked off at your manuscript?

Oh, and what a difficult task it is to bring ourselves back around to that story and realize it's not as perfect as we thought it was when we were in the throes of creating our masterpiece. More often than naught, we tend to have a crazy mess on our hands that at times can sound as random as our thought process. I can vouch for more than one occurrence when I've read through a manuscript and the first thing that came to mind was, "What the heck was I thinking putting that in there?" I'm sure any writer has felt this at one time or another.

Since I'm currently in the midst of finishing up some final revisions on my novel before it goes out on the submission process, I wanted to share a few tips on how to polish up your prose, round it off until it's shiny and glowing all over the page, and perhaps help you out in the process, if not for some of the work you've written in the past, then perhaps for something you plan on writing in the future.


I say occasionally on this one because the to-be verb tends to come off a little bit like "he said/she said": You don't necessarily see it after a while because our minds have become so conditioned by its use. But, that doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt to put a little more action into your sentences. Readers want to see the action moving along, and if everything comes off in the passive voice, you can really slow your story down. Evaluate your verb use, think about if there's a better way to form some of those sentences, and think about some stronger verbs (but not completely obscure verbs that only jump out at your readers) and finally look at the flow to make sure that what you've changed is really working in your storyline.


I'm sure we've all heard this more than a time or two, but I was surprised by how often I'd put similar words in sentences following one another. And they can be the most simplest of words, like "but" and "always." Of course there are the extreme cases where you might find you have a penchant for using a strong word quite often. I found out that mine was the word "bob." I know, sounds like a strange one to repeat, but when I did a word search, I had more than one manuscript should have to hold. If you find that an uncommon word is jumping out at you when you read your story, then do a quick search and if there's an over abundance of repetition, start thinking of a replacement or rewording the phrase all together.


You know, the ones we like to call gerunds. For whatever reason, writers are drawn to writing sentences starting in -ing. You'll find them in every book you read. Okay, maybe not every book, because I'm sure there's a big hater of gerunds out there who made sure not to use a single one. The problem with starting a sentence with gerunds is the fact that they often create a sentence filled with impossible actions. Here's a bad example:

  • Kissing the dog, Alice spoke to the mailman.
So, I think we can all safely agree that you can't kiss your dog and speak to the mailman all at the same time. Well, I guess you could, but I think that would be awkward and the mailman may never deliver a package directly to your door again. In any case, keep a close eye on how you're starting a sentence.


I know I've read books where the storyline is bogged down with more comparisons than I care to read. Sometimes the author thinks "like" and "as" are her best friend, but that's when I start rolling my eyes. And you don't want to induce eye-rolling. But that doesn't mean you stay away from comparisons all the time. Sometimes it can help improve the overall length of a scene as well as offer a connection to your reader if you use something that takes a detailed, abstract description and boils it down to a simple idea. And it can help get your point across more quickly.


Taking a scene and creating a long-winded mess or being so sparse with details that your reader has no idea of setting and time can create some bad hang-ups for your manuscript as a whole. As an example, I have one manuscript where I'm describing the few belongings a character is packing away after he quits his job. I don't make a detailed laundry list of every article in his duffle bag, but instead narrow the items down to about three things that speak volumes of what will come later on in the story: A photo of a girl he was once sweet on, a Nazi pin his brother had stolen from a dead soldier and later gave to him as a gift, and the last birthday card his dead father gave him. Each item is important and each one speaks volumes of the people and circumstances surrounding the characters that gave them to him. Put into perspective what you need in a scene and why. Will it strengthen the manuscript? Or will it bog down the scene?

I could probably go on and on with other ways to polish your prose, but that's my short list for now. Let me know if there's something you struggle with, either in your own writing, or in that of something you've read!


  1. I had to laugh at the comparisons tip. My CP hates those. He's always drawing a line through mine. Okay, maybe I sometimes have three lined up in a row and could eliminate two. And I'm great at detecting repeat words like "just". They're almost always invisible to my partner, so I'm mean and highlight them all in yellow to make them stand out on the page. :P

    1. Yeah, comparisons can be tough. We seem conditioned to as have to compare things in life so it tends to find a way into our work!

  2. My 7th grader learned an interesting concept this year, one that was even new to his sister, who went through the same class a few years earlier: the linking verb. The concept of linking verbs is another way of saying what you said, MM: do not use "to be." Linking verbs don't express action; rather, they connect the subject of the verb to additional information about the subject. So, for example, "My mom is a writer." "Is" is the a linking verb there; better to say "My mom writes." Son received assignment to describe me using *no* linking verbs, and let me tell you ... we worked on that for a long time, it was much harder than it sounds! A good writing exercise.

    I think with the "-ing" structure the problem is much more the dangling participle than the gerund. You can use "ings" just fine as long as you are clear about who is doing what. Here's a great explanation of that I came across:

    I totally agree that metaphors can get out of control, to the point where they're laughable. There are some great "student essay" memes about that, which may or may not be genuine, but are hilarious. "The little boat drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball would not" is one of my favorites. :)

    Great tips! The last one is most definitely one I need to keep pinned to my computer screen.

    1. Although I should add, "to be" is fine in moderation, right? You can't get by without it. But it's a good exercise to look for more active verbs.

    2. Interesting exercise. I'll pay more attention to these linking verbs from now on.

    3. I've heard about the linking verbs before but haven't ever put much thought into them. But, I do try to weed out the passive voice whenever possible. The fact of the matter is that you can't get through life without the "to be" verb. That's just the way it is. I'm not overly bothered by seeing it in books, because sometimes that's what the text calls for. But it does get to be like "he said/she said" in the fact that we don't even seem to notice it after a while.

  3. Love that illustration!

    When I started writing fiction I had a really hard time with similes and metaphors (I came out with some weird stuff. In fact, I still do! Ha ha... )

    Repetition (of words and actions) is one of my biggest problems up to date ( and you can testify to that, Sister M!)

    I'll keep these tips in mind in my upcoming revisions. Thanks!

  4. Repetition seems to be the bane of my writing! I'm always stumbling across words that just shouldn't be repeated as much as I use them.

  5. These are great guidelines for writing in general, I'd say. Good luck with your submission.

  6. Great advice! I think I might be an over-metaphorer. I blame Tom Robbins.


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