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April 27, 2010 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – 10 Ways to Keep Your Prose Strong and Simple

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction”. Have a seat, as in right now, please. I need your full and immediate attention. We are, as usual, on a maximum 5 minute blog-hoppers’ attention span time limit. Plus I have a very important tea and crumpets date with Ms. Flanders in just a few minutes, so …  stop with the freshman flirting and sophomoric shenanigans, turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, boot up your monitors, adjust your undies, scoot your bums into your seats and be still. I’m in no mood for your typical scallywag behavior. And if you’re good, I have some fresh-baked “Delightful Death by Chocolate” brownies for you all after class, courtesy once again of Ms. Flanders … god bless her.

Ahem. Now that’s more like it. Today I’d like to discuss cutting the fat and making your prose simple, direct, and powerful.

Important for writing strong prose is being Spartan, selective, and careful with how much you write. A good friend tipped me off to a blog (WordPlay) where I saw an excellent writing tutorial post, and I felt it deserving enough to use the same list of ten things to watch for in your writing, but write my own interpretation of how to utilize the advisements.

Good, strong prose uses primarily verbs and nouns. Yes, beautiful, even lovely passages, and lofty language has its place, but it can be easily overdone, weakening your fiction and making it too ‘fat’ with excess, burdening the story and slowing its forward motion. Complexity, twists, and well-crafted, dancing sentences are also marks of great writing. But we must not as writers go overboard with our high and mightiness and wind up burying our story in a huge heap of platitudes, clichés, and excess of language. Learn the art of ‘less is more,’ hmm?

Okay, here we go, with Professor Old Silly’s take on these …

Ten Ways to Write Skinny Sentences

1. Don’t state the obvious. If someone ‘jumps out of bed’, there’s no need to write  ‘he jumped up out of bed’. The ‘up’ is implied. If a character gets out of her chair, you need not write that she got ‘up’ out of her chair. That is obvious. Conversely, if Bob ‘lay on the bed to rest’ there is no need to tell us he ‘lay down on the bed’ is there? In dialog, if it is already established that Bob is talking with Mary, once the rhythm of the dialog is established, unless something changes the back and forth, there’s no need for stating that ‘Bob said to Mary’ and visa versa in the tags.

2. Resist the urge to explain. Well written, strong prose, should explain itself. The emotions, feelings, should be clearly implied. There should be no need to ‘explain’ in, for instance, and this is where this one is most often abused, the dialog tags, that the character just ‘cooed’ or ‘spat’ or ‘shouted vehemently’ the words he or she just spoke. ‘He said,’ ‘she said,’ tags should be sufficient if your prose is strong enough. If it’s not, you should consider rewriting the passage and make sure the way the words are being said is made clear by the expressions, motions, actions, thoughts, etc., of the characters doing the talking.

3. Don’t repeat yourself. Nothing is more annoying than an author repeating information to the reader. If we’ve been told earlier in the book that John has a Harvard degree in physics and is a whiz at it, please do not stop to remind us of that when later in the story he finds it easy to help little Johnny with his eighth grade science homework, okay? We get it, already.

4. Write active, not passive. Avoid at all costs passive voice. It removes the readers, holding them at arms length from the story. Active verbs deliver meaning with much more direct and involving energy than passive ones, that tend to fatten your sentences. Do a word check of your manuscript. If it reports more than 5% of passive voice, go on a search, destroy, and replace mission.

5. Cut clichés. Cliché’s are tired, overused, boring bits of folklore sayings expressed in a set formula. Never use them. If when writing your first draft a cliché seems to fit and you cannot immediately think of anything better, go ahead and key it in. But during the self-edits and rewrites, use cliché’s as opportunities to shine, to create the same meaning, thought, feeling or all of the above with brilliant originality. You are a writer – amaze us !

6. Cut ambiguities. Prose is not poetry. It can be poetic at times, yes, but it should always be distinct and accurate. Do not write ‘he walked two or three blocks down the road.’ Was it two blocks or three? State it with accuracy. Bob should not throw her ‘about ten feet’ across the room. How many feet did he throw her exactly? Write that.

7. Cut pointless beauty. Beautiful phrases, often referred to in the editing literary world as “our precious little babies,” are the pride and joy of writers. We smile at our own brilliance, our immense creativity. Careful, though, if you are just showing off your boundless, beautiful, creative way of writing at the expense of the direct, impactful forward motion of the story, you are hurting the overall effect of your book. If it furthers the story seamlessly, then fine—nice job. If not, kill your babies. Sacrificing their lives for the good of the whole book is the right thing to do, painful though it may be.

8. Cut the pompous. Avoid showing off your vocabulary. Nice that you have a great command of the language, but if a smaller, shorter word works just as well, or better, than the larger, longer, and loftier word, use the small word. You are not impressing anyone with your ability to use big, seldom used words, trust me. Also avoid all the ‘therefores’ and ‘heretofores’ and so on … not needed, and fattening to your story.

9. Watch your punctuation. Keep it correct, but keep it simple. If a period works where a colon or semicolon could be used, use the period. Especially avoid like the plague (notice the cliché? Naughty, naughty, Old Silly …) overuse of explanation points! They make your book sound like a constantly barking dog! My ears are hurting trying to read your story!

10. Chop modifiers. Modifying, qualifying adverbs and adjectives, especially the ones ending in ‘ly’, weight down and weaken a sentence. Use them sparcely, with extreme care and consideration. If you write, “John ran quickly to the car”, is it not more direct and with more impact to write, “John ran to the car”? Running is quick, hmm? If you want more oomph in the sentence, write that he “sped” or “raced” or “fled” to the car, but do not weaken the verb you choose by qualifying it with an adverb.

Okay, that’s it for today, thanks for behaving class, we’ll dismiss blog now, oh, and … remember Ms. Flanders provided us with these delicious brownies, so help yourself to one, and …

… huh? … what’s that?

Oh yes, Ms. Flanders, sorry to keep you waiting, here I come, my you look lovely today.

Chow class, enjoy your treats, and blog back to class next Tuesday, be on time, too.

~~~~~

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27 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Elizabeth Spann Craig / Apr 27 2010 7:35 am

    I love these! Am tweeting….

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Enid Wilson / Apr 27 2010 7:41 am

    Confession: I use too many exclamation marks! And I explain too much…

    Steamy Darcy

  3. Stanley Berber / Apr 27 2010 8:21 am

    I’m not a writer, but I can certainly see how these types of things can make a book read much better. Good class, Old Silly, and thanks Ms. Flanders for the brownies! 🙂

  4. Cactus Annie / Apr 27 2010 8:21 am

    Excellent class today, Old Silly – really agree with all these – I’m tweeting it too!

  5. AK / Apr 27 2010 8:32 am

    Bro thanks for sharing.. it’s very useful, especially for a guy like me..

  6. Terri Dryden / Apr 27 2010 8:32 am

    I just love these classes!!! (opps) I tell you, I really don’t think I’m gonna have very many words to write if I have to leave all of these out. hehehe Thanks and thank Miss Flanders for the brownies.

  7. Karen Walker / Apr 27 2010 9:15 am

    These are great, Old silly. Thank you once again, for providing excellent advice and examples for do’s and don’ts in good fiction writing.
    karen

  8. unwriter1 / Apr 27 2010 9:17 am

    Does your lovely wife know about ms Flanders? Hmm.
    I don’t often, not very often anyway try to impress my awesome audience with superflous or any other gargantuan type of word: but then again, there are those times when one must use short and simple, direct to the point, non lengthy and none to short of a sentence to describe what may otherwise be an overly long and obtrusive sentence structure to our most impasssionate reading audience!!!!

    I never, in a million years, over exaggerate anything I have ever written, does me? After all, I are a anglish major, isn’t me?

    Well written and explainatory!!

    • theoldsilly / Apr 27 2010 10:43 am

      My, my, my Unwriter – you, although obviously a grad student, simply MUST stay in class and provide such a good example! 😉

      Erm, Ms. Flanders and me, totally platonic, okay? hush, now …

  9. Leeuna / Apr 27 2010 9:17 am

    Another fine class today, Marvin. And those brownies were delicious. 🙂

  10. Thelma Banks / Apr 27 2010 10:22 am

    Great class, again, Prof Old Silly … I agree when I read a book and the author keeps explaining the same thing over and again, I’m like – hey – I’m not stupid, ok? lol

    And thank Ms. Flanders – great brownies! 🙂

  11. Helen Ginger / Apr 27 2010 10:54 am

    Some of these are easy to implement; others take effort. For example, cutting cliches is not always easy, especially when the cliche says exactly what you want to say. But, as you say, you gotta do it.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

  12. Elspeth Antonelli / Apr 27 2010 11:56 am

    Always, always, less is more. Unless it’s not. Damn.

  13. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Apr 27 2010 1:10 pm

    I have a feeling I will revisit this page again really soon.

  14. L. Diane Wolfe / Apr 27 2010 3:21 pm

    Definitely including this is Friday’s post!

  15. Jane Kennedy Sutton / Apr 27 2010 5:01 pm

    An excellent list that I’ve printed off for future reference. And gosh, I really do want one of those brownies!)

  16. ReformingGeek / Apr 27 2010 5:46 pm

    I was going to tell you how lovely your blog looks today. It’s overflowing with puppies and rainbows and…

    Wait.

    I think I’m overdoing it.

    K.I.S.S.

    😉

  17. Mary / Apr 27 2010 6:57 pm

    Concise.

    Good job. May I pass this on?

    Mary
    Giggles and Guns

  18. tashabud / Apr 27 2010 8:06 pm

    I have a lot to learn from these tips. I tend to write superfluously, overexplain things, and use lots of adverb modifiers ending in “ly”. I hope to improve in all areas before sending you my novel for editing.

    Thanks so much, Prof. Old Silly.

    Tasha

  19. Mason Canyon / Apr 27 2010 9:40 pm

    Always enjoy the class and learn so much.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

  20. Kissie / Apr 28 2010 8:31 pm

    Thanks, Marvin. Bookmarking for future reference….

  21. jennifer / May 3 2010 10:16 am

    Thanks for this list. Great reminders! I am especially guilty of over-explaining and of “ly” words. I need to go on a mission through my most recent fiction piece and kill them all. Haha…

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