SENTENCE BY SENTENCE – WORD BY WORD: 5 Useful Tips for Cleaning up your Prose

Over the past 17 years or so of writing, editing, studying the craft of writing, and teaching writing in the community and in universities, I’ve learnt a few easy tricks to help get your sentences working hard.

My favourite quote on the craft of writing is from George Orwell – “Good prose is as transparent as glass.”

clear window

For me this means, keep it simple superstar! Don’t get carried away with trying to sound “Writerly”, clever, witty, mad or however you think a writer should sound. The writing shouldn’t detract from the story itself. If a reader is stopping to ponder the meaning of your sentences, then they’ve lost touch with your story and that’s never good.

Let your story shine by keeping your writing as clean and clear as a pane of glass. Every sentence, every word has to serve a purpose. It must either drive the story forward, illustrate character, establish setting or add to the story in some meaningful way.

Whether you’re writing flash fiction, short stories, novels or screenplays the same rule applies. Which leads me to my first tip –

1. Does that sentence need to be there at all?

After you’ve written a fast and furious first draft and fallen out of love with it a little, go back and check. Is every scene really necessary or did you just get carried away and veer off course? Do you really need a full paragraph describing that lake or will one good sentence combining the best of that paragraph work much better? The same applies for every word. Go through your work with a fine-tooth comb – think nit comb!

fine tooth comb

In longer works you need to apply this to large chunks as well – Does that chapter need to be there? Does that scene?

Be brutal – save cut bits in another file so you won’t be heartbroken. I do this all the time but have rarely gone back in and rescued one of my darlings. But they’re still there – just in case 😊

2. Trim adjectives and adverbs

Yes, you’ve heard it before and for good reason. Writing styles have changed since those 19th century novels you love to read. Readers these days have a multitude of fast-paced alternatives to a book and most won’t wade through pages of description of a room Henry James’ style. In my university classes I still have many students decorating every noun with a string of adjectives because that’s what they’ve been taught to do all the way through school. ARGH! Get rid of them.

Think of adjectives and adverbs as salt and pepper – a little adds flavour but too much and you’ll ruin your dish.

Metaphors and similes are like chillies – hot peppers. Yes they’re great, but use too many at your peril.

chillies

3. Use specific nouns and strong verbs

Instead of all those adjectives, use nouns that do their job instead. Be specific.

For instance, instead of “colourful noisy birds made loud noises in the tall riverside gum trees”, write “Rainbow lorikeets screeched in the branches of a flooded gum.”

The same goes for verbs. Instead of “She walked slowly”, you could use strolled or ambled or limped or staggered. See how much meaning can be packed into one good verb? English has lots of them – put them to work!

4. Get rid of “There is”

Although we use these words (and “It is” and “There are” etc) often in speech, they create unnecessary clutter in our writing. When we were in high school padding out words for assignments they were useful, but now we know better.

For example; “There is an old car sitting in the driveway of the old house,” can easily be improved by cutting the “There is” and using a strong verb and specific noun (and an adjective) “A beat-up old Holden ute lay rusting in the driveway.”

old holden

5. Get rid of “I can,” and “S/he can”.

It’s still perfectly okay to write,  she can ride a bike. I’m talking about when you are detracting from the reader’s experience of the visceral in your writing by always filtering it through your characters’ perceptions.

“I could feel the rain falling on my face” – changes to “The rain fell like tears on my face.”
“She could feel the sun burning into the back of her neck” – becomes “The sun burnt into the back of her neck turning it hot pink.”

rainy

Of course, these are only hints and tips and all rules are meant to be broken. So if you really need two adjectives for the rhythm of your sentence go right ahead and use them. Just please, pretty please never write “She whispered very quietly” or I may have to scream!

I hope these ideas are helpful. What hints and tips are your favourites? I love to learn about writing and learn most from other writers, so do share your ideas in the comments below.

Write like furies!

furies

Lots of love,

Edwina x

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