It seems to me that the majority of texts about writing concentrate on plot, structure, and character, while few of them look at the mechanics of writing good prose. That’s what I’m going to look at in this essay.
Whatever decisions you make, be sure that that they are, in fact, decisions. You can tell yourself that your bad habits are your ‘style’, but you’ not going to fool anybody. Most of the time you’re not going to be reengineering the rulebook. Most of the time, you want to write lean, powerful, readable prose and so that you can get the story across with maximum impact and minimum fuss.
I’m not going to lay out the Elements of Style for you here. What I am going to do is to describe the tests that I put my own prose through on a daily basis. There are plenty of good reasons to go against these guidelines, but usually when I fall afoul of them it’s due to laziness or pretension. Usually, it indicates bad writing.
Without further ado:
The first and most obvious sign of bad writing is the presence of a lot of adjectives. Long strings of them, jamming up every sentence. “The enormous giant was huge, of tremendous girth, and mighty.” So, I guess the writer is trying to tell us that the giant was really big?
If you’re going to list the qualities of some object that you’re describing, stick to the important ones. Even if you list Roget’s Thesaurus as your biggest influence, it’s best to take it easy on the five dollar words. Any time you see a string of adjectives, double and triple check it for redundancy. Then read the sentence aloud and see if it feels laboured. Then cut half of the adjectives anyway.
Some writers like to front-load, if they notice too many adjectives: “The big, fat, huge giant was tall and mighty, ginormous and tall.” Now the sentence had two strings of unnecessary adjectives, and is thus twice as bad.
When did you last hear a feted author praised for their vocabulary? Never. Authors are more likely to be praised for economy and clarity. Work that is considered to be ‘purple’, ‘turgid’ or ‘flabby’ is usually the work that’s filled with copious quantities of superfluous, redundant, extraneous adjectives.
You should always express action in the active voice.
Actions expressed in the passive voice lack immediacy and beg the question of agency, often leaving the readers to wonder what the hell is actually happening.
There are good reasons to use the passive voice in some situations, but they are uncommon. If you want to conceal the pronoun or the identity of the actor then the passive voice is ideal… but how often do you, the author, need to do that? “While his attention was on the giant, his sword had been taken from its scabbard.” Eh.
The comma splice is becoming so common that I’ve started to do it myself. I see it in newspapers, in novels published by big houses, in personal emails, in blog posts… everywhere. But it’s bad writing. Aside from being grammatically incorrect, comma splices often indicate a slip into the passive voice or a run-on sentence.
When you have two independent clauses in a sentence you need to separate them with a semicolon; a comma is not sufficient. For those of you who are allergic to semicolons, break the sentence into two. There are other options, depending on what you’re saying: a colon for the start of a list; an emdash if the first clause is broken-into by the second, or if there is a logical causation; an ellipsis if it’s a slower transition. If the second clause is parenthetical you might also use parentheses (which are also known as brackets).
That said, be careful with your semicolons. They provide a grammatically-acceptable way to produce run-on sentences, and those are bad–no matter how you punctuate them.
Similes and Metaphors
Similes and metaphors are a minefield.
The first problem is that most of them are clichés. Don’t use clichés.
The second problem is that they reek of Writing. Here is an Author, showing off their Writing Skillz when they are actually supposed to be telling a story. Similes and metaphors pepper bad writing like spots on a spotted dog… and they are usually accompanied by their bastard child, the mixed metaphor.
Think twice before you employ any metaphor. Make sure you’re only employing one metaphor at a time. If the metaphor is complex, think about how you can simplify it. Then polish the damn thing until it hurts your eyes.
Once you’ve come up with a sharp, original, powerful metaphor, look at it twice more. Then look at it again. Does your story really need it, or are you just showing off? Does the prose stop and shout ‘metaphor!’ at you like an angry crossing guard?
Nine times out of ten, if you notice a metaphor you need to cut it.
The fastest way to intimidate a reader is with big slabs of text. Remember that a paragraph should only cover one subject. If your paragraphs are looking big—more than three good sentences—find ways to break that subject up.
If you’re describing a town, for example, you might break it down to paragraphs that focus on the broader geography, the layout of the districts, and finally the buildings that constitute it. This will often highlight redundancies in your prose, metaphorical stumbles, or strings of superfluous adjectives.
If all of that fails, try blindly cutting the paragraph in half and see if it still makes sense. Chances are that it will. You may even realize that you only need one of the resulting two paragraphs.
That’s even better.
Be definite about what you are describing. Actions, scenery, emotions—find the right word and pin it to what you’re saying. “John’s board crested a largish wave and skidded down the back of it, turning slightly before it rammed gently into the beams of the jetty.” Qualifying your prose with adverbs like ‘slightly’ or ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ makes you sound wishy-washy. If the surfboard rammed into the jetty, say so.
“John’s board crested the wave and slid sideways down the back of it, ramming into the boards of the jetty.” Now we have a nice clear picture of the impact. If you don’t want to convey a big impact, don’t use a word like ‘ram’. “The board crested the wave and slid down the back of it, nudging up against the boards of the jetty.”
Write with economy and precision. Use the active voice. Take it easy on the adjectives. Be particularly wary of metaphors. Attend to rhythm, but don’t run on. Whitespace if your friend. Be severe when you edit your own work. But, most important of all… realize that it’s never going to be flawless, and that’s okay. There will always be one mixed metaphor, spelling mistake, typo or error, no matter how hard you work it. Accept it. Floors are part of the charm. And don’t forget to have some fun with it.
It’s only prose.