Writing

Seven Rules of Effective Prose

Stipula fountain pen by Antonio Litterio used under CC BY-SA 3.0 (brightened)

Refining your prose is a long process requiring practice and patience. This learning curve is even harder when you don’t know what needs to improve. These seven pillars of good prose can help you evaluate your work at the sentence level and give you something to strive for.

1. Be Specific

General language is easy to think of, but it doesn’t bring a story alive. Readers need concrete imagery and evocative examples to feel immersed in a scene. Think for an extra second and give your description more specific labels.

Example 1

General: The stone fell and squashed the bug.

Specific: The granite block fell and squashed the caterpillar against the pavement.

Example 2

General: The table was covered in art supplies.

Specific: The table was buried under scraps of paper and broken crayons.

Example 3

General: They walked up to the door.

Specific: They shambled up to the swinging glass doors.

General prose is a wasted opportunity. Those extra details can help set the atmosphere of the scene or flesh out the setting. In this excerpt from The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks misses an opportunity to develop his world:

He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the country just to the north of the Vale, where outlying families farmed and tended domestic livestock. He traveled to their homes every week, supplying various items that they required and bringing bits of news.

Since he’s already mentioning the lifestyle and economy of the Vale, readers could benefit from knowing more specifics.

Example

He forced himself to whistle and turned his thoughts back to his day’s work in the hills just north of the Vale, where outlying families tended tall stalks of barley and herded their goats. He traveled to their humble barns every week, supplying ironwork or pottery and bringing news of the great clashes in the city.

2. Show; Don’t Tell

This is one of the most common adages in writing, but failure to follow it is still one of the most common mistakes. That’s partly because many writers don’t fully understand what the phrase means. To tell is to give your audience a conclusion; to show is to offer evidence for that conclusion. This is not a binary switch but a gradient. At a detailed level, showing means describing sights and sounds. At a zoomed-out level, it might mean summarizing in more depth.

Example 1

Telling: The magistrate didn’t look well.

Showing: The magistrate was unusually pale except for the dark circles under her eyes.

Example 2

Telling: He had difficulty opening his locker.

Showing: When he finally remembered the right locker combination, his hand slipped and he had to enter the sequence again.

Example 3

Telling: She wanted some ice cream.

Showing: She smelled the freshly baked waffle cones and her mouth watered. The ice-cream shop even had maple, her favorite since childhood.

Showing has two strong advantages. First, it makes the story feel more real by providing details like the ones mentioned in the last section. Second, it hides the intent of the storyteller, reducing the chance of a contrivance. Readers will have a better experience if you let them interpret your story how they wish.

While telling is shorter and therefore useful for conveying less important information, it continues to be overused by writers. Telling too much makes scenes feel forced or even melodramatic. Take this except from Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule:

Grief and depression overwhelmed him, and even though he still had his brother, he felt abandoned. That he was grown into manhood offered him no sanctuary from the forlorn feeling of being orphaned and alone in the world, a feeling he had known before, when his mother died while he was still young.

Goodkind doesn’t know how to emphasize his character’s emotions, so he repeatedly tells them when he needs to show them. He doesn’t have to go all the way to narrating what his character sees and hears; he can provide evidence for those feelings by summarizing the specific aspects of the character’s life that made him feel so sad and lonely.

Example

Richard’s mother had died when he was young, and now his father had been taken from him. He’d spent so many years wondering when his father would return from traveling; how strange that the mystery was over. His father was forever gone and forever present, resting silently in Richard’s locket along with the last reminder of his mother. Maybe he’d ask Michael for an image; the locket was closer to Richard than his brother was these days. What remained of his family could sit against his chest as he traveled the woods alone.

3. Cut the Clutter

A classic quote from The Elements of Style states, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” But for various reasons, inserting unnecessary words is a habit that almost every writer must break if they want to master their craft.

Example 1

Cluttery: He started screaming the moment he saw the skeletons in her closet.

Clean: He saw the skeletons in her closet and screamed.

Example 2

Cluttery: There was a very funny play in the park; it was preformed by a local theater group.

Clean: The local theater group preformed a hilarious play in the park.

Example 3

Cluttery: She went downstairs just to chat, but suddenly no one was around.

Clean: She went downstairs to chat, but everyone was gone.

Trimming out needless words will make your prose both more powerful and easier to read. Cutting also helps writers learn which words are essential and which aren’t. Take Example 1, in which the character “started screaming.” Technically the word “started” changes the meaning slightly, indicating the beginning of a scream. But by experimenting with trimming words, a writer will realize that someone can’t scream without starting to. Unless the character draws breath to scream but is then gagged, specifying “started” is unnecessary.

Understanding what words are load-bearing is necessary to master other techniques. Without that knowledge, writers try to perfect their textual machinery by gold-plating all the superfluous gears and wiring. That’s easy to do, but it won’t make a better machine. Once the clutter is gone, the true content is revealed, allowing you to improve it and your readers to enjoy it.

If you gold-plate useless parts, you end up with sentences like this one from City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.

She was beautiful, for a human—long hair nearly the precise color of black ink, charcoaled eyes.

This line conveys no more information than this:

Example

She was beautiful, for a human—long black hair, charcoaled eyes.

4. Stay Close to the Action

Readers should feel like they are part of the story, experiencing events as they unfold. When possible, keep your audience inside the eyes of the viewpoint character, and stay in the moment. If you push them away until they are watching distant actions through a foggy window, your work won’t be as engaging.

Example 1

Distant: He saw the portal open and wondered where it went.

Close: A portal opened before him. Where did it lead?

Example 2

Distant: She avoided eggs; they were stinky and slimy.

Close: She pinched her nose and turned away from the stinky, slimy eggs on her plate.

Example 3

Distant: There were many stars that fell that night, landing in the dark waters.

Close: Star after star fell out of the sky and plunged into the dark waters.

Select the right verbs to create a stronger effect anchored in the moment. Use verbs that are relevant to the action at hand, not common and generic choices. Avoid sensory verbs such as “saw” and “heard,” thought verbs such as “wondered” and “decided,” and versions of “to be” such as “was” or “were.”

Any story will need some exposition offering general knowledge, but don’t use exposition if you can demonstrate your point through immediate events. For example, take this excerpt from Eragon. Christopher Paolini starts with a snapshot of the current moment, and then he unnecessarily jumps away to a general occurrence.

At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver. She carried in her lap a pouch that she frequently looked at, as if to reassure herself that it was still there.

Paolini could have demonstrated the character’s nervousness without losing immediacy.

Example

At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver. She glanced down to the pouch in her lap and clutched it closer.

5. Preserve Order

Readers want to sit back and relax as events unfold. For their experience to be smooth and vivid, those events need to move forward gracefully. If you shake readers around, they could get motion sickness. That’s why you should keep narration organized in the order that actions occur.

Example 1

Shuffled: Shutting the carton lid, she had a last bite of ice cream.

Ordered: She had a last bit of ice cream and shut the carton lid.

Example 2

Shuffled: They looked toward the horizon. The ground was still dry, but dark clouds gathered.

Ordered: The ground was still dry. They looked toward the horizon; dark clouds gathered.

Example 3

Shuffled: Before he stepped outside, he checked for his key.

Ordered: He checked for his key, and then he stepped outside.

Avoid small time jumps like these. Any jump, even for an important transition, requires the reader to adjust. If you have too many, they won’t get the chance to settle in before moving on. For example, look at this excerpt from Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four. In it, he haphazardly spits out a short flashback.

I am told the ground shook, that the skies were full of light and explosions. We were in that two-week period of the year when both moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. It was a time of celebration, and the explosions were at first mistaken for fireworks. They were not. It was warm, a soft wind blew in from off the water. I am always told the weather: it was warm. There was a soft wind. I’ve never understood why that matters.

While it’s realistic for memories to be jumbled, this doesn’t allow the reader to experience the moment before being tossed elsewhere. Here’s how I rearranged this paragraph in my critique of the book.

Example

I am told it was warm, a soft wind blew in from off the water. We were in that two-week period of the year when both moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. It was a time of celebration, and the explosions were at first mistaken for fireworks. They were not. The ground shook; the skies were full of light. I am always told about the horizon. The clouds were dark. The waves were still. I’ve never understood why that matters.

6. Foster Variety

Keeping readers entertained means offering novelty in your sentences as well as in your story. Fostering variety in your sentence structure and rhythm will keep readers immersed. If you repeat the same words, structure, or rhythm, your writing could become monotonous.

Example 1

Repetitive: He flew his ship toward the port. The traffic control signaled him to land. He landed his ship at the fifth station.

Varied: He flew his ship toward the port, listening for clearance to land. The traffic controller gave him the go ahead, and he eased his vessel into the fifth station.

Example 2

Repetitive: She dived beneath the swirling waves, swam back under the dock, and grabbed onto one of the supports before pulling herself back on the dock, drawing out her knife, and attacking the mercenary.

Varied: She dived beneath the swirling waves. The shadow of the dock was near; she swam under it and found one of the supports. Silently she pulled herself back onto the dock. The mercenary was still looking over the waters for her, so she drew her knife and attacked.

Example 3

Repetitive: As we walked to our sacred space, we saw a bird gliding overhead. Before we walked any farther, we stopped to admire the bird.

Varied: We were walking to our sacred space when a bird glided overhead, smooth and silent. We stopped to admire it. Once it was etched in our memories, we smiled and continued on our way.

Giving your narration variety means changing the sentence structure, altering the number of words between commas or periods, and switching between synonyms for the same item. Avoid opening sentences or paragraphs the same way several times in a row.

Besides keeping readers entertained, variation in sentence length can be used for emphasis. Short sentences have more punch than long ones. Writers like Terry Goodkind are missing an opportunity by using long, rambling sentences so frequently.

From a young age, Richard had liked to spend time with Zedd while his father was away. Richard’s brother, Michael, was a few years older, and having no interest in the woods, or in Zedd’s rambling lectures, preferred to spend his time with people of means. About five years before, Richard had moved away to live on his own, but he often stopped by his father’s home, unlike Michael, who was always busy and rarely had time to visit.

Here’s how it feels with more variance.

Example

Richard spent his time with Zedd while his father was away. Richard’s brother, Michael, was a few years older, and having no interest in the woods or Zedd’s rambling lectures, he spent his time with people of means. Richard had moved away to live on his own five years before, but he often stopped by their father’s home. Michael rarely did.

7. Add Personality

Writing stories calls for different techniques than writing technical manuals. While the right style varies depending on the story, prose that is dry and clinical isn’t as engaging as prose that shows feeling or personality.

Example 1

Dry: She avoided her boss until her report was finished.

Engaging: She dodged her boss’s looming shadow until the last frantic sentence was added to her report.

Example 2

Dry: The rain grew harder, so they took shelter under an alcove.

Engaging: The rain became a vengeful torrent, so they sought asylum under a nearby alcove.

Example 3

Dry: That evening, he wore a tux in anticipation of the party.

Engaging: That evening, he was ready to storm the party with a smashing tux.

Feeling and personality are added to prose through a large variety of methods. You can substitute more flavorful words for more conventional ones, use techniques like metaphor or personification, add creative imagery, or include more bias in your character’s viewpoint.

While tense moments often require concise wording, make sure emotional scenes have the feeling they deserve. Take this example from I Am Number Four:

In that instant the blade of a sword, long and gleaming, made of a shining white metal that is not found on Earth, comes through the door and sinks deeply into the man’s chest. It protrudes six inches out through his back, and is quickly pulled free. The man grunts.

The “protrudes six inches” makes the murder of a protagonist sound like an autopsy report. Lore could have done better with some simple changes.

Example

In that instant the blade of a sword, gleaming an unearthly white, leaps through the door and impales the man through the chest. It bursts through his back in a fountain of blood, and then it disappears like a fading ghost. The man grunts as his legs fail him.

While even bad practices have their use in storytelling, these guidelines can help you hone your wordcraft skills. Once you’ve refined your prose, you can make creative decisions about the effect you want to create and successfully create it.

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Comments

  1. Quinte

    Have you read ‘amulet of Samarkand’? It switches between first and third person view points depending on which of the main characters are narrating: I think the writer uses this to show that one of the characters is an unreliable narrator.

    • Chris Winkle

      I generally find shifts between first and third person weird and jarring, but as I haven’t read Amulet of Samarkand, I won’t judge. Did you like the viewpoint shift?

      • Sam Beringer

        Having read the first book, I don’t remember being bothered by the POV shift; it was only one POV per chapter, so it wasn’t really confusing. I do remember preferring the 1st person POV, though; the narrator’s personality truly shone through it and was a joy to read even with his frequent use of footnotes.

  2. Quinte

    I’m not sure, it was interesting. The series is my favourite and has defined my tastes for books.

  3. Justin

    You must really loathe City of Bones… I agree. It was almost as bad as Twilight, very close second.

  4. Richard

    The entries from the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest may be instructive examples of what NOT to do – http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

    “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

  5. Timothy

    I’m not sure if it is at all useful to say, but this is complete nonsense as advice to write a story which will entertain ‘readers’. Some readers like their prose that way, others don’t. That these rules are not rules to write something which millions of people will love is completely proven by your examples, many of which are books that millions of people love.

    I admit I sort of came into reading this expecting it to be a manual of good ideas if I invert it and do the opposite. I’ve been recently reading a lot of reviews of bestselling books, and a consistent pattern is that most of them are lambasted for style failures by people who most likely dislike the book for completely different reasons, or who were never part of the intended audience.

    What people like varies enormously from person to person, these sorts of rule lists give an extremely misleading impression that people like to read specific things.

    The first two rules led to sentences I liked more, at least in isolation.

    I now suspect that a lack of sentence variety only bothers my inner ear if it involves short repetitive phrases, since I liked both your correction of Brooks and the original equally.

    I liked the cluttered sentences far more, and that part of the reason is that even though the additional words don’t add any semantic meaning, they change the emphasis and feel, and hence make the sentence more specific. Cassandra Clare’s prose is purple but more emotionally effective than yours. Hemingway might despise it, but your imagined audience most likely isn’t Hemingway.

    The same for distancing, sometimes in your examples I liked the more immediate better, and sometimes I liked the more distant. But Paolini’s version triggered emotions about the character better for me than yours.

    As for the quotes from “I am number four”, the originals are some of the best stuff I’ve read today, and I now want to look up the book. The way he switched backwards in time in the first paragraph undoing the order was an emotionally compelling moment, and I suspect that by producing a little speedbump that makes the reader pay attention for just an instant such misorderings can make the prose more entertaining to read.

    Your attempts to add personality via proper use of the thesaurus made me gag. “They sought asylum under a nearby alcove.” Really? Gah. To each their own, which is the point. Someone who listens to this advice will get better at writing the prose you think you like, which may or may not be the prose that you actually like, but which unambiguously is not the prose giant numbers of readers, probably including the potential writer, like.

    My personal instinct is that if a would be writer scrupulously tries to follow all of these rules, they are going to write something that is drained of personality and blandly unreadable.

  6. SunlessNick

    For Preseve Order’s example 2, it seems like the looking still ought to come first, because they still need to look to see the ground. What about, “They looked around them. The ground was still dry, but dark clouds gathered on the horizon” – looking f/b nearby sight f/b further away sight?

    I like the article, though. One to bookmark.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, I’d say that’s a good edit.

    • Cay Reet

      Another thing to keep in mind is the right sequence for action: instinct, emotion, thought, (conscious) action.

      You don’t need to have everything every time, but if you have more than one, keep to this sequence, because this is how they happen in our brain. Instinct is fastest, because it doesn’t need any conscious brain activity. Emotion is next, it’s also subconscious. Then comes thought, which is faster than action. Finally, there’s every kind of conscious action.

  7. Sara Baptista

    Oh my, my… Probably Terry Brooks is mad at you, but nothing like a good review!
    This article is funny, specially when you began writing with too much cluttery, then – with the advice that isn’t good – you turn it too simple. Damn right article!
    And please, do not talk about ice cream, I’m hungry.

    Keep going ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)ノ

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