As a former reader for a literary journal, I first learned to watch for language. I looked for creative, rhythmic prose that engaged the senses and provided a clear voice. But it took time to recognize and appreciate these qualities, and even longer to apply them in my own work.
Now, as an editor, writer, and reader, I’m constantly on the lookout for crafted prose that’s evident from paragraph one. Crafted prose means the writer isn’t simply moving characters from point A to point B, but arranging images and syntax to create rhythm and evoke emotion.
While all levels of a story must be effective for publication, stilted language can stop an editor in her tracks before your plot even begins. To refine your own language, remember the following tips:
Choose Your Style
When I use the term style, I’m referring to minimalist, maximalist, or somewhere in between. Notice the difference between the passages from Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago.
They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching the ruts and the musicians on the chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.
Much of your style has to do with instinct. Do you cringe at the thought of sprawling descriptions, or could you describe a scene for pages? Whatever you choose, stay consistent. Don’t be minimalist on page one and switch to a maximalist style on page three.
Many writers rely on abstractions in their descriptions. The issue with abstractions is they do not ground your reader. When you say something is beautiful, hideous, terrible, amazing, etc. it doesn’t provide a concrete image the reader can see. Instead, abstractions remain different for everyone, with one person’s view of beauty drastically different from the author’s. If you don’t explain what beautiful looks like, your reader is lost, and your description has no effect.
When you meet a new person, how do you describe him to someone else? Do you say he’s 6-feet tall with blue eyes, brown hair, and a beard, or are you more likely to explain unique things about him? The same goes for setting. Are the mountains tall? Is the sky blue? Does the dining room have a table? As you write, move beyond the obvious and into the memorable.
But Watch for Runaway Similes and Metaphors
Runaway similes and metaphors are tricky. I can see the writer has good intentions, but the image has backfired. These comparisons are so unrelated, they depart from what they’re describing. For example, if you compare your character stretching his legs out to unrolling a sleeping bag, notice what happens: You’re going to jump to the sleeping bag and leave the character behind. I’ve written many metaphors like this in the past, and it usually takes a trusted reader to point them out. If you’re feeling particularly proud of an out-of-the-box image, use caution, and test it on a reader.
CRAFTING NOVELS & SHORT STORIES is packed with advice and instruction from best-selling authors and writing experts like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Hallie Ephron, N.M. Kelby, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass, and more!
Listen to Your Writing
Once you move to the revision stage, it’s essential to check for rhythm. Syntax can be used for special effect—short sentences can produce a jolting or racing effect, and long sentences can leave readers breathless. Read the following lines from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections out loud.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred—she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table—each felt near to exploding with anxiety.
Aren’t you exploding with anxiety, too? Read your own story aloud and look for places where language can mirror the situation it describes, i.e., a lengthy passage about anxiety structured to produce anxiety.
Repetition, when used correctly, can be extremely effective. But unintentional repetition in your syntax and diction can send your piece straight to the rejection pile.
When you lack variety in sentence structure, you end up with lifeless writing. “She woke up. She went to the kitchen. She ate breakfast.” It doesn’t matter how dramatic the scenario, if executed with flat language, your reader won’t stick around. To check for sentence variety in your own work, try the following exercise:
Exercise 1: Check for Sentence Variety
- Grab some highlighters, and choose one color for each sentence type.
- Highlight every sentence with its corresponding color.
- If you see large clumps of color, revise to vary your sentence structure.
With diction, repetition can take the form of “pet” words or descriptions. Writers subconsciously fall back on default language or descriptions that were successful in the past. Since it’s difficult to identify “pets” in a simple proofread, use this exercise.
Exercise: Replace Your “Pets”
- In order of appearance, list every verb used in your story. Then, list every noun, every adverb, and every adjective. As you list, I highly recommend that you indicate your page breaks.
- Find your matches in each category, then highlight your biggest offenders on the page.
- Replace your “pets” with a greater variety of language.
And, Of Course, Proofread
Nothing is going to make me lose confidence in your story faster than careless mistakes.
Writing with precision is key. As an editor, it tells me you understand craft and study all levels of writing, from characters to plot to the nuances of punctuation. Provide a striking image, and you’ve piqued my interest. Keep them coming, and I may just follow you to the end.
Chelsea Henshey is an Associate Editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writers Market Series. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaLHenshey.