How to Write Halfway Decent Prose

by jster02

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Before I became active on CYS, I spent a lot of time on another website geared towards younger writers. While I was there, I wrote quite a few reviews in order to gain a reputation and increase my rank. After awhile I realized I was giving the exact same advice to a whole bunch of different people. Slowly, I even began to recognize that had I struggled with some of the very same things when I was first starting out. Most of the problems were simple and easy to fix, yet detrimental to the overall quality of the work. I found myself rereading the same lines over and over or skimming through whole paragraphs, just because of a few errors that were repeated throughout. The worst part of it was, there were some pretty interesting ideas present that might have turned out great if the authors had simply been given a few pointers beforehand. So for all you newbies out there, here are a few tips to make your prose a little bit better.

1) Avoid all unnecessary words and phrases.

Treat words like a precious resource. Oftentimes, new writers will use words like "that" or "was" more often than they need to. This manifests most often in something called the passive voice. Without going into all the nuance of it, passive voice usually means using phrases like "He was running" or "You are jumping" as opposed to "He ran" or "You jump." Notice how the latter two examples use less words to say the same thing and flow better because of it. They put the reader directly into the action instead of just telling them about it. But the passive voice isn't all you have to watch out for. Unneeded words can slip in anywhere. "That" is one of the more common culprits when it comes to this. For example, you might have a sentence like this:

"This doll is the only toy that she owns."

Technically, this sentence isn't breaking any hard-and-fast rules, but that still doesn't mean it's any good. Look how much removing the word "that" helps:

"This doll is the only toy she owns."

In the second example, the reader doesn't have to do quite as much work to understand the sentence. It may not seem like much, but one word can make all the difference in a situation like this. I could list more examples, but I think you get the idea. I should probably note that this doesn't mean you should avoid adding extra details just to bring your word count down. You're only trying to get rid of the words that add absolutely nothing to the sentence. In fact, too little detail can be it's own problem, which brings us to the next point.

2) Make sure to add enough detail to immerse your reader into the story.

It's really easy to hit all the plot points in a story without actually taking the time to fully develop any of them. One of my first storygames, (now unpublished because of how bad is was), had this exact problem. Each scene was only three or four sentences long where they should have been a good paragraph or two.  An example pulled straight from the first page went like this:

You are in a cave.

It is dark.

You can't seem to remember how you got there. 

What do you do?

This is a somewhat extreme example, but I've seen it come in a somewhat more mild form too. If I were to rewrite this scene today, it would go something like this:

You wake up to pain slicing across your forehead. Groaning, you open your eyes to find yourself somewhere dark, almost pitch black. For a moment you lie there, body aching. Slowly, you sit up, wincing as you do. A quick swipe of your finger across your forehead finds it sticky and wet. Even without seeing, you can tell it's blood.  

There's a light off in the distance. A way out perhaps? In the dim glow, you can just begin to make out some of your surroundings. It looks like you're in some kind of cave, but you're not quite sure how you got there. Come to think of it, you can't remember much of anything about your life before this moment. Panic rises in your chest, but you push it away. Now's not the time for that. All that matters is finding someone to help you get home, wherever that may be.

The key here is to add just enough detail to give the reader the information they need to connect the dots in their mind, but not too much that it becomes overwhelming. There's no need to describe the exact way in which the dust particles swirl through the air unless doing so would enhance the reader's perception of the scene. A little goes a long way. 

3) Use dialogue and use it right.

For whatever reason, it seems like newer writers tend develop an aversion to dialogue. They might throw in a few lines here or there, but not nearly enough to feel like a full conversation. This goes hand in hand with adding detail. Quoting a character is naturally more thorough than simply paraphrasing. This aversion may be because many don't actually know how to properly format it. There's a great article here detailing exactly how to do that, but it leaves out one crucial thing that many newbies forget: that whenever a new person starts speaking, a new paragraph starts. If you're only going to get one thing about formatting dialogue right, it should be this. Without proper spacing, it's nearly impossible to understand who's saying what. There's nothing more confusing than a block of text that looks like this.

"Hey John, how are you doing?" Rick asked. "Not good," John replied. "My dog died yesterday. She had cancer, so we had to put her down." "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I lost my cat just last year.  Poor thing got hit by a car." John sighed and put his head in his hands. "I didn't expect this to hurt so much. I mean, it's just a dog, but even still, I loved her so much!" "I know how you feel, man. Losing pets always sucks."

I can hardly understand that and I was the one who wrote it. Now look what happens with proper formatting:

"Hey John, how are you doing?" Rick asked.

"Not good," John replied. "My dog died yesterday. She had cancer, so we had to put her down."

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I lost my cat just last year. Poor thing got hit by a car."

John sighed and put his head in his hands. "I didn't expect this to hurt so much. I mean, it's just a dog, but even still, I loved her so much!"

"I know how you feel, man. Losing pets always sucks."

Another handy tip for writing dialogue is that you don't have to put dialogue tags, (he said, she said, etc), for every new line when only two people are speaking.  Look at the example above. It's still clear who's talking the whole time even though it isn't always explicitly stated. This cuts out unnecessary words and makes your prose less repetitive.

4) Avoid redundant sentences.

Try not to use the same words or phrases multiple times in a row.  Also make sure you don't write a string of sentences that start or end in the same way, or you might end up with something like this:

You see a masked man off in the distance racing towards you, sword in hand. You turn and start to run away from him but he's gaining fast.  You feel the sword plunge into your back, piercing your whole body and coming out your chest. You watch as a red stain grows around the wound, your vision swimming. You slump over, dead.

This is not only repetitive, but choppy as well. Luckily, this problem can be fixed just by being a little creative with the way you word things. Try out new phrases and shuffle them around. There are dozens of right answers here, so surely you can find at least one. When you're finished, your prose should look something like this:

Squinting, you can just make out a masked man off in the distance, racing toward you, sword in hand. The sight alone is enough to spur you on. You turn and run, but he's gaining fast. Something sharp pierces your back, stopping you in your tracks. Within a split second, the tip of the sword breaks through the skin on your chest, stained with blood. Your body shakes and your vision swims. The world fades away as you slump over, dead.

Of course, redundancy doesn't always take this form. It can happen within a sentence or two with a repeated noun, verb, or adjective. For example:

You swing the hammer as hard as you can, driving it into the board with one swing.

This is another easy fix.  Just changing the word, or sometimes removing it, is usually enough.  See how much better this sounds:

You swing the hammer as hard as you can, driving it into the board with one hit.

5) Do all the other things people tell you to do.

Read a lot, write a lot, proofread, and take criticism. You've probably heard all this a thousand times, but that doesn't make it any less valid. Most of the problems above will work themselves out if you learn to do these things well. When it comes down to it, that's all you really can do. Articles like this will only take you so far. Sure, if you take these tips to heart you might learn to write halfway decent prose, but that doesn't mean it'll turn out to be anything amazing. You've got to really get in there and work at it if you're ever going to become a truly great writer.

That said, if you're still brand new at this, perhaps this will save you some grief. Better to learn these things before putting your work out there, because the internet isn't exactly the most forgiving place. In any case, mastering these concepts will put you miles ahead of those who don't. With any luck, soon it'll be you giving advice to random twelve year olds on the internet.