Nancy Kress is the winner of three Nebula Awards and one Hugo award for writing. At the UK Writers' College, we give all of our students her article to read, and ask them to overhaul a passage of their writing, tightening flabby phrases and omitting unnecessary words.
Words are the essential nutrients of our stories. But, too often, we get so caught up in our idea, characters, setting, emotions and plot, we lose sight of the basics. Our writing ends up flabby and weak.
The best stories are nourished by balanced proportions of the fundamentals – the proteins, vitamins and minerals of language, if you will. Here’s a cautionary example of a paragraph bloated by the wrong diet:
Jane walked with awkward slowness into her lavatory and put cold water on her eyes. She was tired and had drunk too much the night before. Barry had been buying her drinks and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jane looked at herself, and pretty upset, closed her eyes from the mirror. She looked and felt terrible. Maybe she should take something to help, but she didn’t think it would. “Rats,” she said dispiritedly.
Can this paragraph be saved? Yes, but only by drastic rewriting. Let’s see how.
Strong verbs, more than any other part of speech, give prose vitality. Conversely, weak verbs make sentences mushy. Choose strong verbs, and your sentence is halfway there.
A strong verb can replace both a weak one and its supporting adverb or phrase. “Jane walked with awkward slowness” should be either “Jane staggered” or “Jane lumbered,” depending on Jane’s degree of verticality. Fix “said dispiritedly” with “moaned”, “groaned” or “whined”. Barry, who “couldn’t take no for an answer”, could have simply “insisted”.
An exact, single verb packs more power than an approximate one. “Put cold water on her eyes” wakes up with “splashed cold water on her eyes.” This paragraph also contains “was” - the weakest verb of all in “She was tired.”
This point can be dropped, because the rest of the paragraph implies it. If kept, the single word “tired” should stand alone.
Invigorate your prose by avoiding entire classes of verbs:
•“There was” constructions. Move the words around and strengthen the verb. “There was snow on the car” could be “Snow blanketed the car.”
•Verbs made from nouns for office purposes. These aren’t visual – and turn prose pallid: “finalise”, “prioritise” and “upgrade”. Save them for inter-office memos.
•The progressive past instead of the simple past. “Sam was ironing his shirt” is clunkier than “Sam ironed his shirt.” On the other hand, the sentence requires the progressive past if something interrupts an action. “Sam was ironing his shirt when the phone rang.”
Not all nouns are created equal. The more specific your nouns are, the better. Not just a “dog”, but a “pit bull”; not just “music”, but “Beethoven” or “Barry Manilow.”
Any solid noun has more heft than abstractions like “justice”, “grace” or “patriotism”, which convey no sensory image. Furthermore, these concepts are open to interpretation: One person’s “justice” is another’s “revenge”. Your story may be about justice or revenge, but illustrate your interpretation rather than name it.
Even a precise noun can be ineffective if mishandled. “Lavatory” usually refers to a toilet in a public building. Since, in our example, Jane is in her own home, she should be in her “bathroom” instead.
In our example, “drinks” would be stronger if more explicit: Was Jane drinking beer, champagne, martini’s or something really lethal, like Rusty Nails? Each of these provides better insight into Jane’s character. “Something to help” presents too many options. “Aspirin,” “Tylenol” or “tomato juice” would be stronger.
Sugar ‘n Spice
Mark Twain wrote: “When you catch an adjective – kill it.” You don’t have to go that far; Adjectives have a legitimate place in fiction because they can perk up prose. Just avoid the wrong ones:
•Weak adjectives. “Cute baby” and “small dog” don’t tell enough. What makes that baby cute? Is that dog small because it’s a Chihuahua, or because it’s only a puppy? Be specific.
•Unnecessary adjectives. Some, like “tired” in the example passage, are implied. Others are redundant: “white snow.” Tell us if the snow isn’t white, otherwise we’ll assume that it is.
•Adjective overload. Too many modifiers in a row dilute one another, weakening your image. “Grey snow” is better than “dirty, grey, dingy snow.”
Conversely, the right adjectives give startling contrast or intensity to a noun. Imagine “her predatory teeth gleamed in the candlelight” without “predatory”. “Cold water” is all right; it’s straight-forward and informative. “Terrible” is vague. Each of the following sentences suggests a different setting and character:
She looked and felt like hell.
She looked and felt like five miles of bad road.
She looked and felt like her own grandmother.
She looked and felt bloody awful.
Use the adjective litmus test: if you remove it, do you alter the message or meaning? If not, follow Mark Twain’s advice.
Adverbs also work best when used in moderation. Select adverbs that enhance your verbs, not just repeat them. Qualifiers suck the vigor out of prose. “A bit cool”, “rather pretty”, “a little tart” are persnickety – they rather diminish the kind of impact you mostly need your prose to rather have. Intensifiers imply that you don’t trust your words and so must insist on them.
Reserve “really”, “very” and “totally” for dialogue by characters who speak that way. Eliminate “said” adverbs by being specific: “Whispered” instead of “said softly”. Make the dialogue carry the emotion, not the adverb shoring up “said”.
Bite Size Exchanges
Pronouns lead to confusion when two or more same-gender people inhabit the same sentence: “The man with the red hat and his son arrived at the theatre, and I watched him unwrap his long scarf.” Who is wearing the scarf? Man or boy? Who is unwrapping it?
Plural verbs and singular pronouns frequently slip into spoken usage: “Will everyone please take their seats?” It’s fine to do this when speaking, and it’s often an attempt to avoid sexism, but narrative requires pronoun-verb number agreement. Recast the sentence: “He asked everyone to sit down.”
Use conjunctions conscientiously. Repetitious construction becomes monotonous for readers. For poor Jane, all but the last two sentences feature a compound verb: five “and” sentences in a row followed by a compound sentence with “but”. In addition to the main conjunctions – “and”, “or” and “but” – subordinate conjunctions like “since” and “because” annoy readers after a while. Vary your sentence structure.
Get up and go words
Prepositions lead us around your prose: “Up”, “to”, “from”, “with”, “for”, “around” and “under”. They’re essential, yet prone to two problems: overloading and misplacement.
Overloading makes a sentence awkward and hard to read: “Barbara ran across the bridge, over the pond, by the farmhouse to the road to town.” Better: “Barbara left the farmhouse and ran across the bridge toward the road leading to town.”
Many misplaced modifiers are carelessly placed prepositional phrases. Our sample paragraph includes a wandering mirror in “Jane looked at herself, and pretty upset, closed her eyes from the mirror.” This awkward sentence needs to relocate the mirror near the verb pertaining to it. “Jane looked in the mirror.” We can dispense with the prepositional phrase “at herself” (Whom else would she see?). Cut out similar prepositional clutter such as: “a smile on her face”.
Interjections, while certainly not required, put personality into dialogue. Just observe a few guidelines:
•Match interjections to your character. A person who exclaims, “Oh, crap!” is not the same as the one who calls out, “Lord ‘a Mercy!”
•Avoid stereotypes. Contemporary Irish-American cops don’t say, “Faith ‘n Beggora” (if they ever did). Stereotypical speech will, at best, undermine your credibility; at worse, it’s offensive.
•Profanity may be natural for many characters, but it shouldn’t overpower subtle story. Let your ear be your guide. Jane’s “Rats!” is both weak and wrong in her situation. Better would be: “Oh, God!” or “Shit”.
Let’s have another look at our sample paragraph, now rewritten to better use each part of speech:
Jane staggered into the bathroom, and splashed cold water on her eyes. Last night, Barry had insisted on buying her Martinis – way too many Martinis. Appalled, Jane peered into the mirror. Bloodshot eyes, pasty skin – she looked like a burned-over forest. Maybe she should take something. Aspirin? Valium? Cyanide? Nothing would help this. “Oh, Shit.”
See that? More vivid, and 18 words shorter. In addition, we have a stronger sense of Jane’s own distress at her behaviour.
Winston Churchill attributed his speech-writing ability to teachers at Eton who made him diagram sentences. You probably don’t need to diagram your sentences; just fortify them with the most nutritious words you can get your hands on.
Re-used with kind permission from “The Writers Digest”, July 2004.