Prose Writing 101

The chances are that you already have a talent for prose. Writing a novel probably wouldn't have occurred to you in the first place if you didn't have a way with words and were incapable of writing prose with style.

I'm not talking about the ability to produce poetic language here, or the kind of writing you have to read again and again to marvel at its beauty.

That kind of writing is generally best reserved for poetry and the fanciest kind of literary fiction.

Much more useful for the purposes of fiction is the ability to write with a clear, concise, and uncluttered style... and with a confident voice.

These key articles set out the fundamental principles (check them out now if you haven't already)...

What I want to cover here is the nitty-gritty of strong prose, or nine specific ways to write like a pro.

Some of these will be obvious to you; others may not be. All of them make the difference between a novelist who is read and one who is not. So pay attention!

1. Don't Overuse Adjectives and Adverbs

"As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."
- Mark Twain

Instead of this: He dived excitedly into the cool swimming pool.
Write this: He dived into the swimming pool.

Instead of this: She crossed the road quickly.
Write this: She crossed the road.
Or better still: She ran across the road.

Note that I warn you against overusing adjectives and adverbs in your prose, not to avoid them altogether.

Using too many will give your novel's prose a "purple" tint. Using too few, or none at all, will make it clinical.

Where possible, cut out the adjective or adverb and use a better noun or verb instead...

  • "Mercedes" instead of "expensive car"
  • "Sprinted" instead of "ran quickly"

Or sometimes simply cut the adjective or adverb and stick with the original noun or verb...

  • "Apple" instead of "juicy apple"
  • "Laughed" instead of "laughed hysterically"

Only keep an adjective or an adverb when it is the only way to achieve the precise shade of meaning you want. Ignore everything else in Prose Writing 101 except for this rule and your writing will show an immediate and vast improvement.

2. Avoid Writing Prose In the Passive Voice

Instead of this: The idea came to John as he was driving home from work.
Write this: The idea came to John as he drove home from work.

Instead of this: Mary phoned when I was eating my lunch.
Write this: Mary phoned as I ate my lunch.

Note that the second sentence had to be reworked. "Mary phoned when I ate my lunch" wouldn't have been quite right. You could have even scrapped the "eating" part altogether and written, "Mary phoned in the middle of lunch."

If a sentence sounds weak and a direct translation from passive to active voice doesn't work, simply play around with the sentence until you get it right.

Writing effectively often comes down to a simple tinkering with the words.

Avoiding the passive voice is a small point, I know, but the active voice is simply much sharper, and therefore much better suited to stylish prose writing.

3. Don't Use Weak Qualifiers

Look at these sentences...

  • She felt very happy to be home again.
  • It was rather rude of him not to phone first.
  • Johnny did really well in the examination.

The italicized words are all known as qualifiers.

Here are some more...

  • Little
  • Exceedingly
  • Somewhat
  • Extremely
  • Quite

They add nothing to a sentence, and effective prose writing demands that they should be cut.

4. Avoid Unnecessary Words

Instead of this: The fact of the matter was that Brenda felt ill.
Write this: Brenda felt ill.

Instead of this: He crossed to the other side of the road.
Write this: He crossed the road.

This one is self-explanatory. The best kind of writing is always concise, meaning that if words can be cut from a sentence without altering its meaning, they must go.

In prose, less is nearly always more.

5. State Things In the Positive

Instead of this: His ex-wife didn't make him feel welcome at her wedding.
Write this: His ex-wife made him feel unwelcome at her wedding.
Or better still: His ex-wife made him feel like a gatecrasher at her wedding.

Instead of this: Mary didn't like Frank.
Write this: Mary hated Frank.

Again, it's a small point, but I think you will agree that making a positive statement is much stronger.

With all of these "rules" on prose writing, though, there will always be exceptions. In the second example above, perhaps a word like "hate" simply isn't part of Mary's vocabulary - perhaps she's too nice a person.

And in the first example, you might consider using the first sentence for ironic purposes. You could write, "His ex-wife didn't make him feel welcome at her wedding", and then go on to describe how she greets him with a loaded shotgun.

6. Prefer the Concrete to the Abstract

This one really comes down to a matter of details. The more precise you can be with them, the stronger your prose will sound.

So instead of this: That weekend, Jane bought a new car.
Write this: That weekend, Jane bought a brand new Porsche.
Or better still: On Saturday morning, Jane bought a brand new Porsche Cayenne in midnight blue with all the extras.

Details, details, details.

And preferring the concrete to the abstract doesn't just apply to material things. Look at these two sentences...

  • After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby walked home feeling happier than he'd ever felt in all his 13 years.
  • After his first kiss with Samantha, Toby couldn't keep the goofy grin off his face all the way home. When he came to the front gate, he jumped clean over it, didn't come close to tripping.

Happiness is an abstract concept and needs to be demonstrated (shown not told) with concrete details, like the wide grin and the gate-jumping.

7. Prefer Simple Words to Fancy Ones

Take a look at the following pairs of words...

  • exclaimed, said
  • precipitation, rain
  • veracity, accuracy
  • exhorted, encouraged
  • perambulated, walked

Needless to say, good writing demands that you always choose the second type of word.

Unnecessarily fancy words will impress no one. If you find yourself looking up a word in your thesaurus and then your dictionary - in that order - the word has no place in your prose.

8. Rearrange Sentences for Strength

Instead of this: To get a better look at the garden, John moved to the window.
Write this: John moved to the window to get a better look at the garden.

The beginning and end of a sentence are its most important parts. If a sentence sounds weak, therefore - or "not quite right" - try rearranging it so that it starts and finishes more definitively.

Rules, as I am always telling you, are meant to be broken, so don't feel the need to stick to these prose writing principles too religiously.

Open any great novel at random and I bet you will find an example of what you "shouldn't" do on the very first page.

  • Sometimes only the passive voice will do.
  • Sometimes a fancy word is preferable to a simple one.
  • Sometimes "too many" adjectives or adverbs work.

Writing is a personal thing - we must all develop our own voice, our own style. And so the best advice I can give when it comes to writing with style is to learn the rules - but always follow your instincts.

9. Add Variety to Your Prose

Variety is something you should aim for in novel writing in general, not just when putting words down on the page. For example...

  • Novels need a good mix of characters - heroes and cowards, beauties and beasts, people you love and people you hate.
  • They need a variety of scenes - some short and others long, some action-packed and others built around dialogue, some with good outcomes for the protagonist and others which end in disaster.
  • Novels need a range of moods - sometimes light and sometimes tense, funny one minute and deadly serious the next.

And so on and so forth. If fiction is peopled by characters who are all virtual clones of each other, and if each event is like a re-run of the previous event, and if the tone is all shadows and no light, or all light and no shadows, the fiction will quickly become monotonous.

Variety is interesting. But you can draw up the most varied novel plan ever devised and still fail to bring it to life if your writing is dull.

Back to writing prose...

Moving from the big picture of prose to the finer details, here are some of the ways to achieve variety:

Vary the chapter lengths. A typical novel might consist of a dozen chapters at twenty five pages each. But making one ten pages long and the next forty would be better.

Mix dialogue with narrative. Reading a page or two of dialogue can be a welcome break after a lengthy stretch of pure narrative. Equally, too much dialogue can be like reading a screenplay if it isn't broken up prose. If you have long chunks of one or the other, try to mix them more thoroughly.

Vary the paragraph lengths. If every paragraph is more or less eight lines long, reading the book would soon become tedious. The same would be true if every paragraph were two lines long or twenty. So mix it up.

Vary the sentence lengths. This one is the most important piece of advice in the entire article. It lies at the very heart of writing prose that is a pleasure to read. The following example illustrates why...

Varying sentence length is the key to writing interesting prose. Make them all a similar length and a passage soon becomes dull. The third sentence in this example is about as long as the first two. If I kept it going for too long, you would start to feel sleepy.
   So I'll shake it up! Sometimes I will use long sentences that go on for a while, particularly sentences with lots of clauses separated by commas, like this one, or perhaps even some dashes or brackets if I feel like using them. (By the way, semi-colons can be a useful way of joining related sentences together to make a long one; they really are the most under-rated of all the punctuation marks.) And sometimes I will keep the sentences short. Maybe twice in a row. Or even three times. Before concluding this example with a good old medium-sized sentence. Or maybe another short one. Like this.