Saturday, 7 July 2012

Polishing Your Prose - Part 1

Every writer should understand the importance of adding finishing touches prior to a submission to an agent or editor.  While absolute perfection is unattainable, writers should tidy and polish their MSS/short story to the best it can be, and this is for several reasons.

One is to present to your would-be agent or publisher a professional writer, someone who knows what they’re doing.  Your aim is to make an impression – the right impression.  Another reason is show the reader a flawless, enjoyable piece of writing.
Paying attention to your prose – an integral part of the editing process - is vital because this is where your voice, your style, your technique and your narrative is scrutinised by your agent, publisher or readers and the very structure of your prose determines whether it reads smoothly, makes sense, is enjoyable, or whether it is jarring, clunky or doesn’t read right at all.

The downfall of some writers is that they don’t pay enough attention to editing and rewriting, and the result can be pretty awful.
There are umpteen ways you can tidy and polish your prose, but here we’ll look at the usual things that tend to escape a writer’s attention – the more important ones – like clichés, repetition, waffle, unbalanced sentences, show/don’t tell (exposition) balance of description, narrative and dialogue, overuse of adjectives and adverbs and keeping your POV consistent.

To begin with, start by getting rid of those terrible clichés, unless you want your narrative sounding as though you wrote it in the dark ages.  The same goes for rarely used or archaic words, which might have been popular at the beginning of the 19th Century, but will seem out of place in the modern world (unless of course you are writing a historical based story, where such language was common).
Look out for repetition wherever possible.  This can catch every writer out, so edit judiciously.  Repetition can be certain words within the same sentence, repetition of whole sentences or part sentences, and on occasion, parts of scenes, especially when cutting and pasting during the editing process.

Weed out irrelevant information and cut out unnecessary waffle because this inevitably slows the pace and renders the writing clunky and hard to follow.  Stick to relevant information to move the story forward.
Also, aim for smooth, evenly paced narrative, rather than badly constructed sentences and paragraphs which make to it hard to read.  Tighten sentences wherever possible

Go through your story and reduce the use of ‘Was’ and ‘there’ because these are tell-tale signs of telling rather than showing.  If you want to impress an agent or publisher, then cut down on them.  Too much use of either screams ‘amateur’ at prospective agents and publishers.
Every writer should know the maxim ‘Show/Don’t tell’.  Plenty of writers fall into this – they tell the reader what is happening, but never show them.  The ‘art’ of writing is to create and construct places and people and events, to make the reader become part of the story, to describe them in such a way that the reader feels like they are there.  No writer will accomplish that with ‘telling’, and yet a high proportion still continues to tell rather than show.

With your descriptive scenes, show the reader, don’t tell them.  Paint a picture and lure them in.
As stated in previous posts, try to balance the narrative, the description and the dialogue.  Too much or too little of these elements can make the story uneven and awkward to read.  It doesn’t have to be exact, but get a good balance of all three and you will make a reader happy.

Don’t forget to cut overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  Again, too many of either will show agents and publishers that the writer is amateur.  Let your nouns and verbs do all the work.  They are much stronger.
Make sure your POV is consistent throughout – don’t have it change from one point of view to the other during the middle of scenes, and it’s essential that you maintain the protagonist’s viewpoint by not letting other characters take over.  Aim for an 80% - 20% ratio of protagonist: other characters (more on this in upcoming articles).

At the end of the day, whose story is it?  The protagonist’s story, therefore make sure it doesn’t waver from their perspective too much.

Polishing Prose Checklist
Ensure:-
  • You’ve eliminated clichés.
  • You’ve eliminated repetition – words, phrases, sentences repeated scenes etc.
  • Cut out waffle/irrelevant information.
  • That narrative isn’t overly flowery and sentences remain tight and concise.
  • That there are few instances of ‘was’ and ‘there’ as possible.
  • That you show/don’t tell.
  • You have a good balance of narrative, description and dialogue.
  • You’ve removed adjectives and adverbs.
  • You’ve kept a consistent POV.
There are a lot of things to look out for in fiction writing, but by keeping an eye on these main points, polishing your prose should become second nature.


Next week: Part 2 of Polishing Your Prose.

4 comments:

  1. Just how important is correct writing composition and grammatical correctness, in finding an agent?
    I am of course asking this to those who have found agents leading to a published novel.

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  2. It's very important. It shows the agent EXACTLY what your calibre is. If you send something that has grammatical mistakes or poor structure, your MS won't get a second look.

    Would you go on a date in your scruffy jeans and T-shirt that has a gravy stain on it, unkempt hair, bad BO and not a whiff of aftershave? Of course you wouldn't, because you don't want your date to think you're a dirty scruffbag that couldn't be bothered to make the effort.

    So it's important that you present yourself to agents with a professional, precise and sparkling MS that will knock their socks off.

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  3. I've noticed that a lot of authors, Stephen King for example, seem to come close to violating the "show don't tell" rule in the form of exposition. In "Cujo," Joe Camber is reflecting on how he got the dog, or Jack Torrence remembering how he got fired in "The Shining."

    At what point is this line crossed and it deviates from useful narrative?

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    Replies
    1. A lot of writers do push it, it's very true, but these are normally very established and successful writers who've been around for years, so they can and so slack sometimes. There are countless famous writers that do it, simply because they can. They're already published and have squillions in the bank, so they don't really have to stick to rules.

      The point is, for writers trying to get on that published ladder, 'show, don't tell' is still an integral and very important aspect to stick to. As Chekhov once said: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass".

      Would-be writers should stick to this.

      Delete