Writing

Five Simple Ways to Make Your Prose Easier to Read

Some stories have succeeded despite their purple prose or clichéd descriptions. But if your narration is hard to read, you’ll have trouble just finding beta readers, much less agents, publishers, or happy customers. However, we all start somewhere, and naturally, some of us are more excited about our stories than the words we’re putting on the page. So if people are telling you that it’s tough to sort out what you’re saying, here are five simple steps that could help.

The most effective changes depend on your writing style, so I have two sample paragraphs to demonstrate the difference these changes make. Both paragraphs are adapted from client manuscripts and would benefit from being easier to read.

Example One

Surveying the space, Nona understood why the songweave had suddenly vanished: Halveni had fulfilled his oaths. A sneer of deepest loathing painted across his face, the mortwight lashed out with more of the duskfire, which surged through Halveni’s shield and enshrouded his arm. The Lanauren emperor bellowed, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The blow partially landed, carving a fist worth of flesh out of the mortwight’s face. He stumbled backward, and a low song emanated from the black collar encircling his neck. As he raised his head, the wound began to knit, and as the flesh closed, the song ceased.

Example Two

The man, Yuna’s son, didn’t seem very nice. He had looked them up and down covertly as they entered the tavern and visibly frowned when he got to Kira. His light curly blond hair gave him a youthful appearance and his pale pink skin gave the unmistakable impression of traveling not on foot but by covered caravan. He had money and Kira knew it and he knew she knew it. She had smiled wide at him, used to people approaching her with either ill amusement for a past transgression, or suspicion for a probable future one. Kira, Ren, and Oni continued on towards a farther away table and had dinner. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the man sent back dishes and sniffed his drink. By the grace of the Allmother, she was going to steal something from him that was for sure.

1. Add Paragraph Breaks

The easiest way to improve readability is to insert more paragraph breaks between sentences, particularly in large paragraphs. In some cases, this can substantially aid readability. When adding breaks, look for places where your paragraph changes focus a little, such as where:

  • The viewpoint character starts either taking actions or speaking.
  • Dialogue or action switches to a different character.
  • Exposition or description starts or ends.

Splitting paragraphs can be especially helpful during dialogue or fight scenes. Given that, let’s divide up the paragraph in example one.

Example

Surveying the space, Nona understood why the songweave had suddenly vanished: Halveni had fulfilled his oaths.

A sneer of deepest loathing painted across his face, the mortwight lashed out with more of the duskfire, which surged through Halveni’s shield and enshrouded his arm.

The Lanauren emperor bellowed, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The blow partially landed, carving a fist worth of flesh out of the mortwight’s face.

He stumbled backward, and a low song emanated from the black collar encircling his neck. As he raised his head, the wound began to knit, and as the flesh closed, the song ceased.

Above, the fight is easier to follow because the paragraph breaks provide a cue for which character is acting. Otherwise, they’re more likely to think the sneer is Halveni’s before learning the mortwight is the one doing that. Because multiple characters are mentioned in the same sentence, the breaks aren’t perfect, but they’re still a distinct improvement.

In some cases, splitting paragraphs doesn’t really make prose easier to read, but it makes it feel easier. Small paragraphs take less time to finish and give readers the impression that they’re making good progress. That could keep them from feeling discouraged when they have to slow down to understand something.

Of course, this does have diminishing returns once your paragraphs get small enough. While a few one-sentence paragraphs are okay, most of your paragraphs should be a little longer. For more, read my article on paragraph breaks.

2. Split Up Your Sentences

In the manuscripts I’ve seen that are tough reading, the most common reason is that the writer is trying to stuff too much content in each sentence. Long sentences can be a lovely addition to narration, but if not handled with skill, they will be tough to read. The longer a sentence continues, the more things readers have to keep in mind at once. Long sentences can also blur the boundaries between one thought and another, especially if commas are missing. The result is a jumbled pile of clauses that readers have to pause and parse out.

That’s why one of the most effective ways to improve readability is to break up long sentences. If it spans at least two lines on a standard page, it could be too long.

Let’s apply this to example two.

Example

The man, Yuna’s son, didn’t seem very nice. He had looked them up and down covertly as they entered the tavern and visibly frowned when he got to Kira. His light curly blond hair gave him a youthful appearance. His pale pink skin gave the unmistakable impression of traveling not on foot but by covered caravan. He had money and Kira knew it. He knew she knew it. She had smiled wide at him. She was used to people approaching her with either ill amusement for a past transgression, or suspicion for a probable future one. Kira, Ren, and Oni continued on towards a farther away table and had dinner. She watched out of the corner of her eye. He sent back dishes and sniffed his drink. By the grace of the Allmother, she was going to steal something from him that was for sure.

If you have too many short sentences in a row, it will make the rhythm of your prose a little choppy and stilted. To avoid this, you can leave a few sentences on the long side. That’s why I left “He had looked them up and down covertly as they entered the tavern and visibly frowned when he got to Kira” as it was.

The number of short sentences you can have depends on context, but if you have four or more in a row, look for ways to vary sentence structure.

3. Replace Unfamiliar Words

Readers can have trouble even if the grammar and punctuation is great. This generally happens when your story is overly complex and readers have to learn and remember too many things. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to tell you to reduce the number of characters (but you should reduce the number of characters), some prose steps can help.

Look for all words that are unique to your setting or story, and give them more intuitive replacements. It’s the total complexity that matters, so you can keep some if you give up others. If you have more than one name for the same thing, choose one name to use everywhere. While it may be realistic to refer to characters by their first names in some situations and their last names in others, that’s only worth doing for a story’s most important characters.

For example one, the unique words would be okay if they’re the only ones in the story and they’re used often. However, this is epic fantasy, so let’s assume the world is complex and we should simplify where possible. Below, I’ve replaced unique words that are not character names and changed “The Lanauren emperor” to “Halveni,” since this refers to the same character.

Example

Surveying the space, Nona understood why the spell had suddenly vanished: Halveni had fulfilled his oaths. A sneer of deepest loathing painted across his face, the necromancer lashed out with more lightning, which surged through Halveni’s shield and enshrouded his arm. Halveni bellowed, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The blow partially landed, carving a fist worth of flesh out of the necromancer’s face. He stumbled backward, and a glow emanated from the black collar encircling his neck. As he raised his head, the wound began to knit, and as the flesh closed, the glow faded.

When making replacements, using the find-replace tool in your document software will help ensure that you don’t miss a word or two. However, you’ll still want to read the whole thing over at some point. Automated tools often result in some redundant words or awkward phrasing.

For more on selecting intuitive words and working them in for the first time, see my article on teaching world terms.

4. Trim Unnecessary Clauses

An editor can do amazing things with just the strikeout tool. Simply by deleting the words and clauses that aren’t essential, a paragraph can become much easier to read.

Partly, this works because most convoluted sentences have a lot of unnecessary information. Stripping that out shortens sentences and makes the phrasing more straightforward. After trimming, statements are less likely to be broken up by tangents, a pattern that’s particularly difficult to read. With excess details removed, the readers’ energy is focused on what’s important.

Example

The man, Yuna’s son, didn’t seem very nice. He had looked them up and down covertly as they entered the tavern and visibly frowned when he got to Kira. His light curly blond hair gave him a youthful appearance and his pale pink skin gave the unmistakable impression of traveling not on foot but by covered caravan. He had money and Kira knew it and he knew she knew it. She had smiled wide at him, used to people approaching her with either ill amusement for a past transgression, or suspicion for a probable future one. Kira, Ren, and Oni continued on towards a farther away table and had dinner. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the man sent back dishes and sniffed his drink. By the grace of the Allmother, she was going to steal something from him that was for sure.

The downside is that doing this may reduce personality and leave the prose feeling more bland. However, learning to be efficient is an important step in developing an entertaining voice. Word clutter only waters down the flavor, and taking out unnecessary words will help you recognize the clutter in your work. Once you’ve learned to write more efficiently, you can add flavor back in, and your writing will be better for it.

5. Be Casual

Ironically, a writer’s determination to create impressive prose can be what makes it difficult to read. I’ve read more than a few first sentences that were overdone to the point of being incomprehensible. Elaborate metaphors, fancy words, and artful phrasing can all contribute to slowing readers down.

So if you’ve been working hard to write prose that will be taken seriously only to learn that readers find it too confusing or dense, scale back a bit. Spend some time writing like you’re talking to a friend. Once you gain more confidence, you can slowly put some of the fancy stuff back in.

Let’s look at example one with plainer language.

Example

Looking around, Nona understood why the songweave had suddenly vanished: Halveni had fulfilled his promise. A sneer on his face, the mortwight lashed out with more duskfire, which surged through Halveni’s shield and up his arm. The Lanauren emperor cried out, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The blow partially landed, carving a chunk out of the mortwight’s face. He stumbled backward, and a low song came from the black collar around his neck. As he raised his head, the wound began to heal, and as the flesh closed, the song ended.

While in some cases this may help significantly, be careful not to do it partway. Unless you’re doing a comprehensive rewrite, save it for your next project. Otherwise you may have clashing styles that are difficult to smooth out.

All of These Edits Together

Let’s take a final look at our examples with all of the edits applied.

Example One

Looking around, Nona understood why the spell had vanished: Halveni had fulfilled his promise.

A sneer on his face, the necromancer lashed out with more lightning, which surged through Halveni’s shield and up his arm.

Halveni cried out, swinging his sword in a wide arc. The blow partially landed, carving a chunk out of the necromancer’s face.

He stumbled backward, and a glow came from the black collar around his neck. As he raised his head, the wound began to heal, and as the flesh closed, the glow faded.

Example Two

The man didn’t seem very nice. He had looked them up and down as they entered the tavern. He frowned when he got to Kira. His pale skin gave the impression of traveling not by foot but by covered caravan. He had money and she knew it. He knew she knew it.

She had smiled wide at him, used to people approaching her with either ill amusement or suspicion.

Kira, Ren, and Oni continued on and had dinner. She watched out of the corner of her eye as the man sent back dishes. By the grace of the Creator, she was going to steal something from him.

While strategic edits can help, it won’t replace taking the time to read through your work. To catch problems you might overlook, read it out loud and backwards. Do this before you hand your story to someone, and you’ll get a better reception.

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Comments

  1. MercuryMuse

    Thanks for the article! I do play-by-post RPs a lot and I can say from experience that clarity in sheets and posts is a very common issue. The number of times I post a text wall that I cringe at later because I didn’t clean it up after I wrote it is honestly apalling. This will definitely come in handy!

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