Quick-and-Dirty Tips for Polishing Your Prose

So, you’ve brainstormed, written, and rewritten. The plot is sufficiently exciting, the theme powerful, the dialogue realistic, the characters complex and believable, the ending unpredictable yet perfectly fitting. Point-of-view and tense issues have been addressed, grammatical errors corrected, clichés banished. But yet…after reading your piece one last time, a lingering dissatisfaction remains. It doesn’t seem as good as the stuff published in your target market and you can’t identify why. Or, you’ve submitted and received back one or more personal rejections saying, “Close,” or “A near miss.”

If this sounds familiar, it may be that while you have no major structural, thematic, or believability problems, and no egregious errors, your line-to-line prose lacks polish. To stand out in a slush pile of hundreds not only do you need a very-good-to-great story, but your language needs to shine.

Mired in short story revisions of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about such things and jotted down a few points to remember while editing. My suggestions for improving prose can be lumped into three categories: brevity, clarity, and impact (which, of course, overlap to some degree).

I.          Brevity: concise expression (Google). Or as Strunk and White state, “Omit needless words.” (Elements of Style)

  • If it’s possible to shorten sentences without sacrificing meaning or style, do so.

The princess was just waking up when she heard the door to her room open with a creak.

INSTEAD:

A creaking door woke the princess.

  • Cut “stage direction” (uninteresting and unnecessary descriptions of action). The reader will fill in the blanks.

She swung her legs out of the bed and slid her feet into her slippers, then got up and walked over to the door to see who was there.

INSTEAD:

She jumped up and flung the door open.

  • Avoid repetition.
    • For example, describing the same thing multiple ways:

On the horizon the sun sat like an egg yolk, golden yellow and ripe with potential. Its amber rays reached across the fields with the promise of a new day. A beacon a hope, a call to morning, the harbinger of spring. And did I mention yellow?

While there’s nothing wrong with poetic language, each line should add something new—unless an idea’s so important it’s worthy of special emphasis (which usually isn’t the case). Otherwise, just pick the best line and go with it.

    • Or repeating the same information at various points in the story:

Princess Bethany…  She was the king’s daughter… As princess, it was her duty… “But I’m a princess!”

We get it.

II.        Clarity: freedom from indistinctness and ambiguity (Dictionary.com).

  • Be specific rather than generic.

The pub was in the poorest section of town.

INSTEAD:

The Smelly Badger sat in a rutted alley across from the docks, where the reek of fish guts hung heavy in the air and not even the Queen’s Guard dared venture except in numbers.

  • Rework vague sentences.

It was all too much for him.

INSTEAD:

Jared sunk to the floor as the events of the last few months—the car accident, his wife’s cancer diagnosis, and now the accusations from his childhood friend—washed over him.

III.       Impact:  forceful contact (Dictionary.com) or, in a writing context, powerful or pithy language.

  • Review each use of was/were or is/are and replace them if possible.

The wind was blowing so hard the shutters were rattling against the window frames.

INSTEAD:

Gusting wind rattled the shutters against the window frames.

  • Replace bland verbs with more interesting and descriptive ones. (*Except for “said.” Fancy speech tags (e.g. “hissed,” “screeched,” “spat” etc.) draw unwarranted attention and create a sense of melodrama.)

He walked out.

INSTEAD:

He stomped out. / He tiptoed out. / He traipsed out. / He darted out.

  • Avoid abstractions (e.g. loved, wanted, wished, felt, hated, etc.)—show rather than tell.

He wanted the puppy more than anything.

INSTEAD:

Risking a case of hives, a two-week grounding, or worse, Jared visited the puppy each afternoon, feeding it a corner of his lunchtime sandwich.

  • Vary your sentence structure. Look for patterns (e.g. same length or construction, always opening with a proper noun or pronoun, etc.) and mix things up.

This is by no means a complete list, but covers the deficiencies I’m most likely to find in my own work and about which I need frequent reminders. I find it useful to do several editing passes looking for different things each time, as I have a hard time focusing on everything at once. It’s easy to get distracted by the content of the story; become enamored with my characters or an especially witty line of dialogue. So, I do one or more sweeps for content, then focus on the nitty-gritty: a sentence-by-sentence review coupled with liberal use of Word’s “Find” feature to root out weak language. Not fun work, but necessary, at least for me.

Two excellent resources for further reading are: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, and The 10% Solution: Self-Editing for the Modern Writer by Ken Rand.

Have any further tips or hints? I’d love to hear them!

Trackback URL

  • Ray Krebs

    Thanks for the post, and thank you for putting the time into creating it. I found it very helpful. I know all this stuff, but somehow never seem to revise with it in mind. A habit I need to create.

  • Nicole Feldringer

    Hi Erika, Thanks again for this post, which I’ve bookmarked as a nice concise list of issues to address during the polishing stage. Another that I would add to my personal checklist is the appearance of questions in internal monologue. They litter my novel first drafts (short stories less so), sometimes smack of authorial intrusion, and can usually be cut right out.