Eight Ways to Tighten Your Prose

by Michele R. Bardsley

1. Write first, edit later.

Get your words onto the page before worrying about how to re-work your prose. Let your creativity flow and allow yourself to make mistakes. Grammar, word choices, tepid descriptions--none of it matters in the first, or even the second, draft.

2. Remove or change words that end in -ly or -ing.

Adverbs and participles give writers excuses not to write well. Slipping in an adverb or misusing a participle weakens prose. Examples:

  1. The lovely lady angrily slapped the badly dressed police officer.
  2. The woman slapped the disheveled police officer.

  1. She agreed to the divorce, wanting to end her rotten marriage.
  2. She wanted to end her rotten marriage, so she agreed to the divorce.

3. Remove dialogue tags.

Most dialogue tags are unnecessary, particularly when two characters are speaking. "Said" is the best word to use in a tag (avoid adding an adverb to it!) because it's considered an "invisible" word--the reader's eyes go right over it. Avoid using words like barked, growled, hissed, and so forth. Characters should not sigh or laugh their words nor should they speak through "gritted teeth." Insert actions/internal thoughts to break up dialogue. Example:

     "Get out, Nick!" she shouted angrily.
     "No, Karen," he said quietly.
     "Leave me alone," she hissed.
     "Not until you tell me the truth, Karen," he said through gritted teeth. "Do you love me?"
     "I never loved you," she sighed.
     "I don't believe you," he growled.
     "Then believe this, Nick," she laughed, "I'm engaged to someone else."

     "Get out!" Karen shouted.
     He crossed his arms. "No."
     "Leave me alone, Nick."
     "Not until you tell me the truth." He grasped her chin and forced her to look at him. "Do you love me?"
     Tears trembled on her lashes. "I never loved you."
     Then why was she crying? "I don't believe you."
     "Then believe this." She raised her left hand. A diamond ring glittered in the sunlight. "I'm engaged to someone else."

4. Take out qualifiers.

Delete rather, very, little, pretty from your work. According to Strunk and White in The Elements of Style, "...these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."

5. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

"Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract." ~~ The Elements of Style. Example (also taken from The Elements of Style):

  1. He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.
  2. He grinned as he pocketed the coin.

6. Write positive statements.

From The Elements of Style, "Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion." Example:

  1. She did not want to be near her former lover.
  2. She despised standing next to her former lover.

7. Substitute active voice for passive voice.

The active voice gives prose a sense of immediacy. Writing that relies less on adverbs and adjectives and more on strong verbs and effective description draws the reader into the story. Example:

     She was not going to go into the dark bathroom. She always heard scary scratching noises that her brother said were monster fingers scraping the insides of the walls. Sliding her hand into the room, she searched for the plastic plated light switch and screamed when her fingers touched something furry.

     She hated going to the bathroom at night. Her brother said monsters lived in the walls, and she believed him. She often heard them scratching the thin plaster walls with their thick monster nails. She closed her eyes and slid her hand along the wall, searching for the light switch. Her fingers skittered against furry bumps. Her heart stopped beating . . . then the furry bumps moved and she screamed.

8. When in doubt, look it up.

If you're not sure what the difference between effect and affect is or whether or not a period goes inside double quotes, or if you can end a sentence in a preposition, then check out the answers. I recommend the following resources:

  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual
  • The American Heritage Dictionary
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

Award-winning writer Michele R. Bardsley is the author of four published novels and numerous articles, short stories, and poetry published in electronic and print publications. Please visit her website at: http://www.michelebardsley.com

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