Four Quick and Dirty Rules for Cleaner Prose

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. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he spat.

Every writer here just went


Sorry, guys. My mind is sick and twisted.

Anyway, if you tag every single line of dialogue, you bog down your pacing. 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. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Punchier result, 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) Burn the fluff.


To me, ‘fluff’ is any word without direct, strong sensory or emotional meaning. Look at this sentence: 

I was aware 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 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.

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.

Sometimes what I consider “fluff,” other people consider a stylistic choice. That’s fine. My writing style isn’t sparse, but it’s less wordy than some. If your style is wordy, that’s fine. As long as it’s clear. Don’t allow style to suffocate your story.

3) You don’t need that rhetorical question.

Or do you?

You don’t. Rhetorical questions are often things readers are already wondering, and spelling it out just feels amateur and strange. If you feel like it’s absolutely unnatural for your character not to ask themselves the question, write 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.

Fine, this one isn’t quick and dirty, but it is a good idea. I’ve heard too many aspiring writers comfort themselves that good grammar isn’t necessary because their editor will fix it. My friend, you will never get that far. Now, if you pay someone, you might. But as a person who has been on the (paid) editing end of a manuscript full of bad grammar–no. You won’t. Just learn grammar. Practice until you get it.

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

Since these tips were advertised as quick and dirty, here are four mistakes I used to make:

  • “Alright” is 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.
  • The dashes used to separate a thought–the ones that serve the same function as parentheses–are called em-dashes. And–as I have demonstrated in both of these sentences–they’re created by using two normal dashes with no spaces between them or the words on either side. Programs like Microsoft Word will automatically combine your two short dashes into one long em-dash when you finish the word following the em-dash.


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.
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s