Prose style

How to write great prose

When you send your work off to an agent, the agent’s first look will be fast, smart — and brutal.

Most likely, the agent (or their assistant) will look at the first page or two of your submission. At that stage, they’re not thinking hard about plot. They’re not thinking hard about market. They’re thinking, quite simply:

Can this person write?

Agents see hundreds of manuscripts and you’ll need yours to say to the agent, right away, from that very first page and paragraph, “Yes. You are in the hands of a confident, capable writer. You will not be wasting your time in getting to grips with what follows.”

It’s just crucial that you send that message loud and clear right from the start, and the simplest way to do that is to write in prose that is clear, economical, precise and professional.

If you achieve that – and it’s not hard – you’re basically forcing the agent to read on. To judge your novel on its merits. To give your story a chance.

Here’s what you need to do.

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Kill Clichés

Cliché is the enemy of every author. And you recognise it when you see it, right? We’re talking about things like this:

  • His eyes were blue enough to swim in.
  • She felt a sharp pain, as though cut by a knife.
  • The breeze whispered softly through gently waving trees.

It’s like watching a movie we’ve all seen before. It’s language that’s stale, old, past its sell-by date.

But cliche creeps in all over the place. The flame-haired passionate redhead? She’s an old, overused stereotype.

The midnight hostage exchange in a deserted warehouse? Seen it, read it.

The rose-covered cottage with a smiling old lady and lots of home-made cakes. Yep, nothing new there.

The simple fact is that wherever you grab for pre-made stereotypes – scenes, people and settings that we’ve seen a million times before – you bore your reader that tiny bit. You distance them from the text, when what you want is to hug them close.

So, look for cliches everywhere.

Then kill them.

Be accurate

Take a look at this sentence:

She lay in the early morning light listening to the roar of traffic softly rising like mist in the streets.

What do you think of that? Good? Bad? Half and half?

I hope you said that it’s an awful sentence, because it is. If I were an agent and I encountered this sentence on page 1 of a submission, I would read no further. Why? Because the writer isn’t in control of their language and that proves to me that they aren’t yet ready to go pro.

So let’s see what’s wrong.

She lay in the early morning light” – that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that.

listening to the roar of traffic” – yep, OK. (Although why is there a roar of traffic in the early morning? Unless there’s a very specific setting which answers that question, I worry that we’re not really dealing with early morning here, in which case why say so?)

softly rising like mist in the streets” – OK, that’s where this sentence collapses completely. If traffic roars, it can’t softly rise. You could have a murmur of traffic doing something softly. Or a roar of traffic doing something loudly or violently. But roar + soft just doesn’t work. The two ideas are fighting each other.

And that’s not all of it. Mist doesn’t rise, it just hangs. It’s a stationary image, not a moving one. So that’s another fail.

And why say ‘In the streets‘? Obviously cars are in streets (so why bother to remind us?) And if you want to talk about a slow-rising mist, then isn’t that more naturally a rural metaphor? In which case the word streets again introduces an awkwardness.

In short, the writer of that sentence failed the Accuracy test, because they weren’t sure enough what they wanted to say and ended up just serving up a mess.

Oh, and if you think I’m being picky here, then I admit it:

YES! I’m picky.

So should you be. Books are made out of sentences and sentences are made out of words. If you re not very picky indeed about your word choices and sentence constructions, you will never be (or deserve to be) a real professional author. So be picky. It’s the first ingredient of success.

Keep it short

When you write, treat your manuscript as though you had to pay 10p a word for the privilege of writing. Look at this paragraph.

He walked slowly away, trying not to make any kind of sound. His feelings were in a turmoil, roiling and boiling, a tumult of emotion. He couldn’t help reiterating to himself again and again that he had done the right thing; that he had done everything he could. He insisted to himself that she, too, would surely see this one day.

Ugh. Let’s try that again.

He crept away, his feelings in turmoil. He had done the right thing, he told himself. One day, she would see this, too.

Almost a third of the length. And everything about it is better. It doesn’t just say it faster, it says it better. In the first version, all that verbiage just got in the way.

And again: you just can’t be too picky here.

Let’s say you had a sentence in your book that was 12 words long, when it could say the same thing in just 9-10 words. Would you make the change? Or would you just think, nah, who cares?

I certainly hope that you sai you’d make the change, because look at it like this. What if you write a 120,000 word book that could be reduced to 90 or 100,000 words without losing any material content? That book would be 20-30,000 words overweight . . . and would be way too baggy for any top-end literary agent to get involved with. But you will only cut that 20-30,000 word surplus by finding the 2-3 unnecessary words in that 12 word sentence and cutting them out. That’s what that part of the editing process is all about. There are no shortcuts.

In short: good writers work at their writing. A bad sentence bothers them, so they’ll keep going until they get it right. If you’re not open to cutting your work in service of your novel, making it the best you can, we’re in trouble.

Trust your reader

Another amateurish trait is that of not trusting the reader. We get many clients who write something rather like the following:

He rolled in agony. Fire shot through every limb. He felt like screaming out in pain. His entire face was distorted with the grotesque effort of not shouting out.

That uses many very forceful words (agony, fire, screaming, distorted, grotesque). You don’t need that many words to do the job. It’s as though the writer of this snippet doesn’t trust the reader to get the point, so he/she keeps making the same point again and again like some classic pub bore. Readers will ‘get it’, as long as you write in clear, forceful, non-repetitive language.

Cull those adjectives

To stick with this theme, double adjectives are almost always a no-no. The second adjective almost always weakens the first. Compare this:

He leaned over the black iron railings, the coarse grey cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp, treacherous spike.

Deleting any superfluous adjective improves this straightaway:

He leaned over the iron railings, the coarse cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp spike.

That’s better. Always let nouns and verbs do most work, though. An improved version of this sentence would be:

As he leaned over the railings, his sleeve caught on the spike.

Good writers use adjectives sparingly.

Check your rhythms

Short sentences are strong, so use them, but too many irritate. Like this, for example.

Equally, if you go for longer sentences, replete with abstract nouns, vary these, also.

Prose should ebb and flow. Check to be sure you have both short sentences and long ones. If you don’t, you’ve possibly slipped into a monotonous rhythm. Try reading aloud to test your work.

And Dialogue! she said

We’ve written lots on dialogue, so just bear in mind dialogue should usually speed up writing. Rhythm will quicken, sentence structures becoming choppier, more broken. If you go in for long speeches all the time, dialogue will quickly come across as heavy, didactic.

If in doubt, speed up . . . but have fun, because writing dialogue can be one of the most sheerly enjoyable parts of the writing process.

Add some little flashes of genius

You’ll occasionally find a phrase that perfectly captures something: an unexpected word use that shocks a reader into understanding.

“A quick succession of busy nothings.” … “One moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” … “I shall be dumped where the weed decays, and the rest is rust and stardust.”

These are snippets from writers of genius – Jane Austen, Graham Greene, and Vladimir Nabokov. Never try forcing this on your every paragraph or page (they didn’t). Only a scatter of diamonds here and there has effect, so go for it, if you can. If you can’t, admire (and either way, keep on reading).

Seek editorial advice

Beta readers who write are often insightful, encouraging – and rigorous, meticulous editorial help is useful if you’re seeking publication.

We happen to run several courses on creative writing, and offer editorial feedback for completed and partially-written manuscripts.

If you’d like to learn more, just get in touch. We’re here to help and rooting for you to succeed – happy writing.

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