Polishing Your Prose - Part 2

With the usual faults of clichés, grammar, POV and sentence structure etc all corrected through judicious editing - the prose polishing process should then take on a deeper narrative cleanse to tidy the things that are not so obvious to writers, the things that we don’t always look out for.

This means looking a little deeper to see what else can be improved prior to sending your pride and joy to agents and publishers.
Ambiguity, for instance, is something writers tend to miss.  Ambiguity occurs due to poor sentence structures, often inadvertently giving sentences double meanings and thus confusing the reader (and on occasion, making them chuckle).  What you intended for the reader isn’t always what is understood by them, so make sure every sentence reads correctly and doesn’t give a double meaning.

Tenses still remain the one thing that confuses so many writers, and especially so when working in first person point of view because it’s easy to lose focus and slip from present to past tense.  It’s imperative that you pay attention to tenses, otherwise the narrative becomes weakened.  For example:
I live by the shadows, I hide in them, make them my own. I’ve never had a fear of the dark; they made me who I am.

Spotted the tense change? ‘I’ve never had’ and ‘made me who I am’ should be ‘I don’t have’ and ‘they make me who I am’ respectively.  That’s how easy it is to slip up with tenses. The reader may not spot this, but an editor will.
Hanging participles to begin sentences don’t impress editors, either.  They cause ambiguity and weaken sentences, but they are also a sign of poor writing. 

Flinging aside her coat, she turned to him’ might sound perfectly fine, but to an agent or publishing house editor, it tells them the writer hasn’t paid attention to clarity of the sentence.  You can’t really have a character do two things at once (even though it’s perfectly fine in the real world) because this is fiction, and every action should be clear to the reader. In other words, she flung aside her coat and then turned to face him. Avoid starting sentences with hanging participles if you want to make the right impression.
Clarity and simplicity count – you don’t have to make your writing overly complicated, so that it is hard to follow, and as shown in the example above, don’t fall into the trap of letting your writing become ambiguous and thus weakened as a result.  Writing should be clear and concise.  Clarity and simplicity speak for themselves.

Keep your characterisation consistent throughout the story – characters evolve with the story, as will your reader, so don’t let them step out of character by doing something ludicrous in order to falsely evoke dramatic effect or events in order to force the story, otherwise your risk losing narrative integrity and the reader won’t be too impressed either. 
Also make sure your characters are not clichéd.  In other words, don’t make them cardboard cut outs or caricatures.   They should be individual and flawed as real people, and instantly likeable.

Overall, your prose should have movement, so to speak.  It needs to undulate, race away, slow down, it needs rise and parry, it needs to be gentle, it needs to be exciting.  It should never stay still; otherwise it would bore the reader.  In other words, your prose should have the right balance of pace.  If it doesn’t – either it reads too fast or too slow – correct it.

Polishing Prose Checklist

  • You’ve eliminated ambiguity.
  • You have the correct tenses throughout.
  • You’ve cut out hanging participles.
  • Your prose has clarity and simplicity.
  • You have consistent characterisation throughout.
  • Pacing should be balanced – not too fast and not to slow.

Perfect prose is unattainable, but better prose is achievable.  By paying attention to what matters, a writer improves his or her chances of becoming published and staying published.

Next week:  Getting continuity right


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