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Prose Writing 101: How to Write With Style

Novelist writing prose in a book.

Chances are, you already have a talent for prose. Writing a novel wouldn’t have occurred to you in the first place if you didn’t have a “way with words.”

I’m not talking about the ability to produce poetic prose. Or the kind of writing you have to read again and again just to marvel at its beauty.

That kind of prose writing is fine, but is best reserved for the fanciest kind of literary fiction.

Much more useful for page-turning fiction is the ability to write prose with…

  • A clear, concise and uncluttered style.
  • A confident, natural and unique voice.

What’s the difference between voice and style in prose writing?

Voice is unique to every writer. So Hemingway has his voice, Jane Austen has hers and you have yours. Style is part of voice but is not unique, not by itself. 

Or to put it another way…

There’s no such thing as a good or a bad voice. There’s only your voice. So long as you aren’t imitating another writer or trying to sound writerly, and so long as you ditch the stiff writing voice you developed in school, all is good.

Style (which is a part of voice, but not all of it) is governed by rules. So it is possible to say that doing this is “good” or doing that is “bad.”

This article covers those prose writing rules. The ten points below aren’t an exhaustive list. But they cover the main things you need to get right to improve your prose.

Some of them will be obvious to you; others may not be. All of them are important for excellent prose writing. Here goes…

1. Get Rid of Unnecessary Words and Phrases

This one’s a biggie. Taking twelve words to say something, when eight will do, makes your prose flabby. And guess what? Flabby writing is unlikely to pull the reader through the novel.

So instead of writing this…

The fact of the matter was that Brenda felt ill.

Write this…

Brenda felt ill.

And instead of writing this…

George crossed to the other side of the road.

Write this…

George crossed the road.

Your novels don’t need to be short. And they don’t need to be written in stripped-back prose. But they should be concise.

In other words, if you can cut words from a sentence without altering its meaning in any way, cut them. When writing prose, less is nearly always more.

It’s impossible to provide a comprehensive list of where you’re likely to encounter flabbiness in your prose. It can pop up almost anywhere.

It boils down to being aware of the problem in the first place (which you now are). Then training your eye to spot redundant words and phrases as you edit your manuscript.

2. Kill Weak Qualifiers in Your Prose

Look at these sentences…

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

The italicized words are all known as qualifiers. Here are some more…

  • Little
  • Somewhat
  • Extremely
  • Quite

They’re “nothing” words and add nothing to a sentence. So kill them.

If you think that they do add something, say what you want to say in a stronger way. For example, you might feel that “very” in this sentence is important…

Sarah felt very happy to be home again.

Merely saying that Sarah felt “happy” may not accurately reflect how Sarah felt, so you qualified it by saying she felt “very happy.”

And that’s fair enough. But a better choice would have been to use a stronger word than “happy”…

Sarah felt ecstatic/overjoyed/delighted to be home again.

Only you know your character and your story, so only you can decide on the word with the precise shade of meaning you’re after. But all three options above are stronger than “very happy.”

3. Don’t Overuse Adjectives and Adverbs

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

Instead of writing this…

Jason dived excitedly into the cool swimming pool.

Write this…

Jason dived into the swimming pool.

And instead of writing this…

Elaine crossed the road quickly.

Write this…

Elaine crossed the road.

Or better still…

Elaine ran across the road.

Note that the advice is not to overuse adjectives and adverbs. It’s not to avoid using them altogether.

Using too many will give your prose writing a “purple” tint. (More on that below.) But using too few, or none at all, will make it cold and clinical.

How many is too many? Mark Twain gave some great advice at the top…

As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.

What should cause you to “doubt” an adjective or an adverb?

First, when you read your work aloud, your ear should tell you when a sentence is overloaded with unwanted modifiers. Like here, for example…

Tommy walked slowly into the cold kitchen and slumped heavily into the solid oak chair at the head of the dining table.

The sentence kind of draaaggggggs, right? Here’s a more concise version…

Tommy shuffled into the cold kitchen and slumped into the oak chair at the head of the table.

Second, your ear should tell you when it’s possible to cut an adjective or adverb and use a better noun or verb instead. For example, “Mercedes” instead of “expensive car.”

I did that in the example above by changing “walked slowly” to “shuffled.” You may prefer another verb – “strolled” perhaps.

If you still prefer “walked slowly,” that’s fine. (The prose writing police aren’t going to knock down your door and arrest you.) But you should at least tune your ear to notice the potential problem so you can give it some thought.

Beware Redundancy

Something else to listen out for is when an adjective or adverb is redundant. That’s when you can cut it and stick with the original noun or verb without losing any meaning.

I did that above by changing “solid oak chair” to “oak chair.” Because “oak” already implies solidity.

I also changed “dining table” to “table.” What other kind of table are you going to find in a kitchen?

And I changed “slumped heavily” to “slumped.” The act of slumping implies heaviness.

Bottom line? Only keep an adjective or an adverb when it’s 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.

4. Prefer Simple Words to Fancy Ones

This comes back to what I said earlier about trying to sound “writerly.” Don’t do it! (See Finding Your Writing Voice for more on that.)

Take a look at the following pairs of words. The second word in each pair is the “writerly” version…

  • rain, precipitation
  • encourage, exhort
  • hot, torrid
  • chew, masticate
  • walk, perambulate

The big caveat is that, sometimes, the perfect word just happens to be a fancy word. If that’s the case, fine – use it.

But still beware of words that are really fancy. 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.

What I’m talking about is using a fancy word instead of a simple one because you believe that real writers don’t use simple words. They do!

5. Avoid Writing Prose In the Passive Voice

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. An example will make that clearer…

Here’s the passive voice (the subject is “Mary’s friends”)…

Mary’s party was attended by all of her friends.

And here’s the stronger active version…

All of Mary’s friends attended her party.

Better, right? (Except for “attended” which sounds writerly. Better to say that they came to her party or showed up at her party.)

Here’s another example of passive voice…

The cat had been kicked by John so often, it now refused to come into the house at all.

To “activate” that, simply take the subject (John) and the object (the cat) and flip them around…

John had kicked the cat so often, it now refused to come into the house at all.

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.

6. Be Positive in Your Prose

Another small point (but all these small points add up). Instead of writing this…

Mary didn’t like Frank.

Write this…

Mary disliked Frank.

That’s better because you’re telling the reader what the character did do, not what she didn’t do.

That said, the word “disliked” is still a negative in its own right. So in the final version of the sentence, we’ll replace it with a positive word…

Mary hated Frank.

Here’s another example of stating something in the negative…

Harry’s ex-wife didn’t make him feel welcome at her wedding.

Here’s a better version…

Harry’s ex-wife made him feel unwelcome at her wedding.

And finally the best version…

Harry’s ex-wife made him feel like a gatecrasher at her wedding.

Again, it’s a small point. But I think you’ll agree that making a positive statement is much stronger.

Exceptions to the Rule

The only caveat (and it applies to all of these “rules” on prose writing) is that there will always be exceptions. Take this, for example…

Mary didn’t like Frank.

That’s a weak, negative construction. But maybe it suits the Mary character perfectly. Maybe she’s too nice and a word like “hate” just isn’t part of her inner vocabulary. Or maybe she’s a master of understatement. If so, fine. That’s one of the exceptions to the rule.

Or take this…

Harry’s ex-wife didn’t make him feel welcome at her wedding.

Again, it’s negative and weak. But if the next sentence goes on to describe how she greets Harry with a loaded shotgun, the first sentence works well as a comic example of gross understatement. So that would be another exception to the rule.

The rule still stands, though. Stating things in the positive, not the negative, leads to much stronger prose.

7. 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 in the form of prose.

Novels need a good mix of characters, for example. They need heroes and cowards, beauties and beasts, people you love and people you hate.

Novels need a range of moods. Sometimes light and sometimes tense, funny one minute and deadly serious the next.

If fiction is peopled by characters who are all virtual clones of each other, and if the tone is all shadows and no light, or all light and no shadows, the story will quickly become monotonous.

In short, 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 Prose Writing

The best way to add variety to your prose is to shake up the length of the sentences.

That’s one is the most important pieces 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’ll 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 if I feel like using them, which I do.

And sometimes I’ll 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.

8. Rearrange Sentences for Strength

Another simple (but important) prose writing rule. The beginning of a sentence is its most important part. If a sentence sounds weak, try rearranging it so that it starts more concretely.

So instead of writing 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.

Simple! Next up…

9. Prefer Concrete to Abstract Prose

This one comes down to details. The more specific you are, the stronger your prose will sound.

So instead of writing this…

That weekend, Jane went into town to order a new car.

Write this…

On Saturday morning, Jane drove into Salisbury to order a new Porsche.

Or better still…

On Saturday morning at nine o’clock, Jane drove to the Porsche dealer on Montgomery Avenue to order a new Cayenne in flame red.

Details, details, details.

Oh, and preferring the concrete to the abstract doesn’t just apply to material things. Compare this sentence…

After his first kiss with Samantha, Dylan walked home feeling happier than he’d ever felt in all his 13 years.

With this one…

After his first kiss with Samantha, Dylan 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.

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

10. Avoid Writing Purple Prose

This final one encapsulates a lot of the prose writing rules we’ve covered, such as striking out adjectives and preferring the simple to the fancy.

According the the dictionary, purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate”. It’s the literary equivalent of a chocolate box painting.

Purple prose is very popular with folks just starting out in novel writing. Why? Because despite their intelligence and despite all the great fiction they’ve read, beginners somehow find it hard to believe that simple and plain prose is acceptable.

Writing like they speak, they believe, is commonplace, something any fool can do. To succeed in literature you have to sound, um, literary, right?

Wrong! Believing that good language cannot be simple language is the fastest track there is to writing purple prose.

Don’t Believe Me?

Go into a bookstore and pick a recently published novel off the shelves at random…

Yes, there will be passages of more “poetic” prose, particularly where the writer is describing the setting (though the descriptions should still stop well short of being purple prose).

But the bulk of the writing should be made up of simple words and simple sentences that don’t get in the way of what matters – telling the story.

I’m not saying that simple prose is the only kind of prose worth writing. I’m just saying it’s wrong to write fancy prose because you believe it makes you sound more “writerly.”

Samuel Johnson said it well…

Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

My best advice is to study those writers you admire and compare your prose with theirs. Try to find a passage in the published novel that you can compare directly with one of yours – a paragraph of description, say.

I’m not talking about imitating this writer. Just compare the two extracts and work out how “fully” or “minimally” you have written yours. And then adjust as necessary.

If your passage comes across as being a lot more flowery than theirs, you’ve almost certainly written purple prose.

More Help With Prose Writing

Need more help? Here’s a couple of recommendations for you…

  • The “Bible” of style – Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. You can grab a physical or digital edition on Amazon for very little money.
  • The Hemingway App. Use the free version (by pasting text into that page). If you like what it does, consider investing in the paid desktop app for more convenience.

And here are more of my own articles to help with your prose writing…

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