Four Quick and Dirty Rules for Cleaner Prose

Disclaimer: Guys, whenever I post blogs on how to improve writing, I’m just parroting things I’ve learned from smarter people. Like Rae Chang, Most Excellent Burner of Words. Check out her blog. Also check out the links on my “Writing Class” page.

Here are some of the ways I’ve cleaned up my prose in the past year.

1) Trash all unnecessary dialogue tags.

When we first start out, a lot of our dialogue passages look like this:

“What are you doing?” she whispered. She glanced up, but the librarian was still stamping books at her desk.

He glared at her, slashing the black Sharpie across a yellowed page. “I’m doing what needs to be done!” he snarled.

“Well, you’re doing it wrong,” she hissed.

His lip curled into a sneer. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he spat.

Every writer here just went

BUT WHY WOULD YOU DRAW IN THE BOOKS?!

Sorry, guys. My mind is sick and twisted.

Anyway, if you tag every single line of dialogue, you bog down your pace. Here’s the same bad dialogue without tags:

“What are you doing?” She glanced up, but the librarian was still stamping books at her desk.

He glared at her, slashing the black Sharpie across a yellowed page. “I’m doing what needs to be done!”

“Well, you’re doing it wrong!”

His lip curled into a sneer. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

In my opinion, we get the same result with fewer words. We always know who is speaking and we can infer how they are speaking from the context. It also leaves a little wiggle room for the reader to see the scene how they want, and I think that’s a good thing. You don’t need to micromanage your readers. Part of the art of storytelling is striking a balance between grounding them in the story and allowing their imagination some room to breathe.

2) Fluff. To quote Rae Chang, “BURN IT WITH FIRE!”

image

I’ve always found this hard to explain. To me, ‘fluff’ is any word without direct, strong sensory or emotional meaning. Look at this sentence: 

I was unaware of the fact that she was a girl whose history was often a tragic one. 

It’s a sentence. Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s also kind of a mouth full of mush. (And inspired by a great post on fluff found here.) If we cut the fluff, the sentence isn’t only shorter, it’s clearer.

She had a tragic past.

BAM! Same thing.

“Lies!” some of you are thinking. “We lost information! Before we found out that the character was unaware of the girl’s tragic past!” Guys, unless this is your first sentence, the reader is going to know that from the context. 

Note: The fluff rule doesn’t always apply to dialogue. Some characters talk a lot and say nothing, and if that’s true to them, that’s how it should be.

I will allow that fluff can be a question of style. Some people like to use more words. All of this is just my opinion anyway, so go for it. Write with your voice. But be aware of fluff, and be careful that your style doesn’t suffocate your story.

3) You don’t need that rhetorical question.

Or do you?

Just kidding. You don’t. Rhetorical questions are just you writing down the things you want your reader to wonder, and we’ve already talked about micromanaging the reader. If you feel like it’s absolutely unnatural for your character not to ask themselves the question, include it. Then delete it. See if the passage works. Most of the time it does.

4) When you’ve got time, learn the nitty-gritty.

Okay, so this one isn’t quick and dirty, but it is a good idea. Some writers labor under the delusion that bad grammar or wrong punctuation doesn’t matter. False. It’s up to the writer to have solid sentence construction skills. You may have written the greatest story since Harry Potter, but no one is going to care if your grammar and punctuation is so bad they can’t even read it.  

Hard truth: Great stories are plentiful. Great execution is rare.

This post is not about the nitty-gritty, so it’s up to you to learn those rules on your own. But for funsies, here are three mistakes I used to make:

  • “Alright” is technically not a word. It’s “all right.”
  • It’s either “OK” or “okay,” but never “ok.”
  • Actions after dialogue (like we talked about earlier) are their own sentence. So it’s not “You think you’re so smart,” the readers smirked. It’s “You think you’re so smart.” The readers smirked. One cannot smirk a word, therefore the smirk is a separate action and not a dialogue tag.

 

Do you have additional rules that help you write clear prose? Let me know in the comments!

 

About Caitlyn McFarland

Mom of three girls, writer of fantasy novels.
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