Rewriting · Rewriting · Rules · Writer basics 101

Four tips for writing good prose

Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.

First of all, what is good language?

I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.

But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:

‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

 ‘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.’

It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

Tip 3: Suit the material

The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.

More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.

Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Using notebooks

In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.

Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr

How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments

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30 thoughts on “Four tips for writing good prose

  1. Awesome writing tips.
    One thing that I found helpful was to read out loud – in one of my very last drafts I read the entire manuscript to myself (lozenges required). That was a real eye-opener. There were sentences that seemed so interesting and literary on page, but when read out loud sounded like a drunk sailor.

  2. I’ve noticed that, when I write, I tend to slightly mimic the style of whatever I’m reading. It can be challenging if I happen to be reading something that conflicts with whatever I’m writing, but it can be pretty helpful if they go well together. I’ve also become a big believer in just getting the words down on the page first and foremost, however they may come, and then spend the revising period rewriting it into something smoother and more accessible.

    Mostly, though, I love that there are so many different ways to write a book, and, while they may not work for every piece of fiction, there is some work out there that it will be perfect for. It’s just a matter of working out the kinks and finding what it is!

  3. Great advice!

    I don’t keep a notebook, per se, but I do catch myself jotting down phrases that interest me and I use similar rhythms in my fiction to try to unlock how they work. It’s not really formalized process, but I think it reflects this fascination with effective language you touch upon.

  4. Hi Roz!

    First off, that first example is one I would automatically skim or skip. I don’t have the patience. Love the examples of du Maurier and Dickens. I think voice of the novel and cadence are huge part of prose. Think of Catcher in the Rye. Great dialogue aside, the overall voice of the novel reflects the character and its audience. IMO, that’s why reading aloud is so important.

    I do keep notebooks for everything, although I’ve recently started using Penultimate on my iPad and using the stylus to take notes instead of having umpteen notebooks lying around. Helps my organization, and I need it, lol.

    1. Hi Stacy! I had to read that first example in its entirety because I couldn’t believe someone would write that. And because it was conjuring itself into a character in my mind. I have had to wade through language a little like that in some of the editing work I’ve done and it gives me great pleasure to hack and slay – or throw it back to the perp and ask ‘what does this mean’?

      Penultimate… sounds very tempting. Unfortunately Dave has charge of the ipad in this house so I’d never get the chance to try. I’m the Kindle girl.

      1. I have my own iPad, thank God. Hubs is through work, so I’m lucky. And I have a nook. You know what’s cool, at least here in the States? You can now check out books from the library on Nook and Kindle. I love that because I’ve had to budget my reading lately, and I like the Nook better than paper back.

        I can’t imagine having to edit through sludge like that. I’d cry, lol.

  5. Oh … I love early Christmas presents. This gifted page is packed full of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, all wrapped up with a pretty red-haired bow. Clearly, “Clarity is the counterbalance of profound thoughts” ~ Marquis De Vauvenargues. Now, let all heads turn as my harried hunt for one of those gallops by.

  6. Another winner of a post, Roz! As an indie press owner, I’ve seen it all in the two years I’ve been in business: the purple prose, the ” act of superiority” disguised as communication, and on very rare occasions, the delightful and enchanting /writing/, the real deal. You can imagine my thrill when I encounter that.

    This is a post I’ll return to, you can be sure; well said!

    1. Thanks, Chila. Yes, I get the whole gamut too, from clients. I never mind if the writer is genuinely wanting to connect with the reader; the superior kind can be more difficult. Still, there are ways of getting them to unbend – and sometimes they don’t realise that’s how they come across.

  7. A wonderful post, Roz. I am such a fan of simple. Mostly because I know I can’t do lush, extravagant prose (though I have tried!). Making your language suit your voice isn’t always as easy or straight-forward as it seems. So much of our voice as writers is about the language we use, the flow of it, the rhythm it creates, etc. I can tell at once when my language isn’t suiting my voice. It is glaring to me–and surely would be so to a reader, I think.

    1. Hi Erika – that’s such a good point, making your language suit you. I’ve had to try on a number of writing ‘voices’ as a ghost (ooh that sounds spooky) – some come easily and some are a real effort and I can’t make them convincing.

  8. I love how those excellent sentences feel in my mind’s mouth, ya know? I bore my kids to tears reading lines aloud over and over again. “But did you hear it? Wasn’t it just….perfect? Sigh.” Never thought to keep a notebook of those phrases. And probably wouldn’t read it again, although I doubt that matters.

    @Stacy – Thanks for the tip on Penultimate. Will need to check it out.

  9. Hey Roz,

    Good tips, and I’ll try and keep them in mind. Somehow when putting pen to paper an otherwise unknown voice emerges and takes over. It’s not so much over lexicographal (I think I’ve made that up) but it has persistent pretentions to poetic prose. It must be checked.

    I’ve purchased a replacement copy of NYN now and will bear in mind the advice to ignore the narrative voice until the actual story is right.

    In the meantime I’ll start to keep a notebook with quotes of good and bad prose. It sounds like a useful exercise, and more importantly it’s an excuse to buy more stationery.

    Cheers for now,

      1. Also, I’m on the look out for bookmarks which can be used to write down the page referrences for this stuff, and also words I don’t know for looking up later. Postcards are quite good, but not ideal.

  10. I used to copy good lines on scraps of paper, but then I started to write them in notebooks so I could go back and read them at some point. Of course, I can’t find the place in the notebook or even the right notebook for that matter, but I keep the rhythm and flow of the words in my head.

  11. Hi Roz! Have to say, style is one of those things in which it might be possible to have your cake and eat it. Sometimes people end up writing purple prose because they are trying to play with different words (except for those who are just trying to be clever). Of course, it’s absolutely true that the best writing is simple. But haven’t simple sentences become cliche? Haven’t we seem them a thousand times before? Aren’t they too bland? I think this is the trap some folks fall into. Me, I cheated by taking advantage of the fact that my story has three narrators. The style changes quite dramatically at times to reflect their personalities. For the main two, I use plainer language which helps drive the story. For the third, I use purple prose a couple of times to reflect his unusual state of mind, his intelligence, and yes, the fact that he has something of a superiority complex. 😀

    1. Hi Sally! Ooh, what an interesting comment. Have simple sentences become cliche? Only if they’re boring. With millions of words to choose from, and millions of individual brains having ideas, I don’t think we’ve exhausted the power of simple yet. Is it hard work? Yes. Do you have to spend hours swapping one simple word for another until you find exactly the way to say something, your way? Yes. Simple doesn’t mean it was easy to write.
      Playing with words… yes, of course there are people who do this and make the page hum with life. Not many , though.
      As for the multiple narrators… that is a delicious cheat. An early manuscript I still haven’t got round to working up properly has a narrator who I adored because she is so full of herself. There was lots of pretentious prose in that book.

  12. Hello Roz,

    I just discovered you Ms Morris. How delightful.

    Upon reading your writing advice, I decided I would stop giving mine within my own blog. You cover all the bases quite adequately and eloquently! Thank you very much!

    A few months ago I read a book that was one turn-of-a-phrase after another, to the point I got lost in the lyricism. But as a challenge, I test drove that style inside my next novella. Yes, I could twist words, but it wasn’t fun. And in the back of my mind, I too was thinking about impressing the reader. Or at least myself. And that wasn’t satisfying either. Writing became work.

    So now I’m returning to my own “voice” which tries to make sure my language doesn’t get in the way of my ideas. Sure, if I can express thoughts is a novel way, fine. But more importantly, my words should disappear from the process of reading, as well as myself.


    1. Hello Irving – thank you!
      What an interesting experiment. I’m guessing that writing pretty sentences for their own sake felt pretty hollow, eh? Still, you may well have learned a few things from trying on other voices. In trying to find out what’s right for us we tramp up a lot of blind alleys…

  13. Great post! Examples always help me understand the ideas/advice better.
    Don’t tell anyone but my library has many books with dogeared pages. Sometimes a turn of phrase or an interesting sentence structure reminds of a character or story I’m writing. After I’m done reading, I go back and type up the sentences I really liked. I analyze what I typed to find out what intrigued me then I write one that fits my story.
    I am proud to say I have since bought little Post its to mark my library books 🙂

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