If you could just, like, cut a few things from your most recent draft that would totally make your writing so much better, would you go to the effort to do it?
Excuse me, that sounded awkward. Let me try again.
If you could improve your manuscript by removing weak words and phrases, would you?
Every story consists of tiny, pixel-like decisions that either make the big picture clear and vivid or fuzzy and muted. Whether you’re placing punctuation or determining which character’s voice should narrate a scene, each judgment call will affect readers’ enjoyment. Oftentimes, the difference between clunky and compelling text is a pair of scissors, and the acronym P.R.O.S.E. can help you recognize what to trim.
1. Point-of-View Inconsistencies
Flitting from one character’s stream of consciousness to another jars readers. Staying inside one character’s head is a modern convention, so don’t expect to be able to use older classics as a model for what’s acceptable in the industry today. When readers access the thoughts and visuals of a sidelining character, that’s considered a POV shift, and it should be marked with a chapter or scene break. This tactic immerses readers in the actions and emotions of an individual character as each event unfolds. It also keeps the story believable (because only psychics can probe other people’s minds).
Author H. A. Pruitt agrees. “When I write, I see the story happening through one character’s eyes. So I describe only his internal dialogue. The point of view will stray if an author tries to communicate everything that everyone is thinking and feeling, which confuses readers.”
1. Act out a scene before writing it. Only record the sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and feelings you experience as the POV character. When a writer in my critique group became frustrated with how she tended to include details in fight scenes that her POV character shouldn’t know, she grabbed a fake weapon and went through the motions. That allowed her to understand her character’s limited sensory input and narrow the focus, which intensified the moment.
2. When you need to convey the emotions of a character outside the main POV, don’t resort to telling. Change statements like “Anna shrieked, horrified by the carbs in the oversized ice cream sandwich” to “Pointing at the nutritional label on the ice cream sandwich box, Anna shrieked.” The POV character will see and hear Anna’s reaction to the dessert and can then conclude that she’s horrified (and why). This may seem like splitting hairs, because the difference is very subtle. But mastering the nuance will infuse more realism into your prose.
2. Rampant Ellipses
You’ve probably either noticed or relied on this device…even if you weren’t familiar with the technical term for it. An ellipsis indicates an omitted word or phrase, a pause, or a trailing-off thought at the end of a sentence…
The problem is that this particular punctuation draws too much attention to itself…even more than an exclamation mark! It slows down and chops up your prose…until readers’ imaginations are spasming. You can create all the drama you need…much more effectively…without inserting a trio of dots.
Replace an ellipsis with an action beat.
This was a new discovery for me. One night, I brought ten pages of my middle-grade novel to my critique group. One of the members flagged all the ellipses, and I listened to her advice…(sorry, couldn’t resist) which immediately smoothed the flow of the passage. Here’s a small sample:
Before: “That feels…better. Thanks.”
After: He rolled his shoulder. “That feels better. Thanks.”
3. Overused Words
Any writer will admit to having pet words. Mine are just, so, and like. I did a survey on Instagram, and respondents also listed very, funny, little, look, and nice. All of these words share one vice in common: vagueness. What does “the woman is nice” even mean? Does she bake cookies for teachers? Visit nursing homes and play her ukulele for the residents’ entertainment? Or is she simply cheerful and upbeat? Because nice has a broad range of interpretations, it carries an infinitesimal emotional impact.
Stronger, more specific nouns and verbs will transform your prose from flabby to lean and muscular, as the following alternatives to very demonstrate.
- Very close < near
- Very happy < ecstatic, elated, joyful
- Very sad < devastated, distressed, distraught
Luckily, the Find tool in your word processor is your friend. Type in a word you think you overuse and see how many times it appears. If it’s a short one like so, dozens of longer words containing those two letters will pop up, so be sure to add a comma or space after it to filter the results. Once you’ve identified your target, you don’t need to eliminate it altogether, but recast some sentences to reduce its recurrence. Specially designed programs, such as ProWritingAid, can also help you oust repeated words.
4. Stale Words
The right word can set a scene’s mood, give the character’s surroundings a tangible quality, and tug readers’ heartstrings. The wrong word can, at best, dim what’s happening and, at worst, frustrate or mislead readers. Our struggle as writers is that we often fall back on comfortable words (sometimes even clichés). Although we shouldn’t flaunt our vocabulary or fill pages with flowery metaphors, we do need to be intentional about how we express our ideas.
Read and write poetry. It will expose you to rich language, force you to select words that make your meaning unmistakable, and teach you to employ literary devices like alliteration and assonance. Once you get used to assessing each word, you can do the same with longer pieces of fiction. Your prose will become more concise and your imagery more vivid.
Editor Claire Tucker recently endorsed the benefits of poetry on Instagram, so I asked her to share her thoughts on the topic: “Writing poetry takes your prose to the next level in so many ways. When you confine yourself to rules like rhyme scheme and meter, you have to think more creatively about how to best convey your message. The first word that comes to mind may not fit the pattern you’re trying to keep, which pushes you to expand your vocabulary.
“Reading poetry inspires you to look beyond what is being stated to what is meant. It makes you aware of subtext, and when you understand which things you can leave unsaid, you’ll be able to deepen the emotional impact of your prose through what you choose to highlight. You’ll also learn the power of a well-chosen motif and how a common image can be used to mean something else.
“I believe that the reason reading and writing poetry helps us craft stronger prose is because poetry is more focused on the words themselves and the desired emotional impact.”
5. Explained Emotions
When you name an emotion, you’re robbing readers of the opportunity to dive into and explore the anguish or joy the character is experiencing. Writers slip into this habit either because they’re in a hurry or because they’re worried readers won’t understand the character. But most readers are perceptive, and you’ll impair their connection to the character if you wave a sign in their faces.
Portray the emotion without ever mentioning it directly. Activate that handy Find tool to search for forms of the word feel, which should pull up instances where you’ve telegraphed emotions. He felt happy. He felt nervous. She felt relieved. She felt scared. Now, stretch your imagination and memory to figure out how your own body would respond in a similar situation. Act out the entire scene if you need to! Does your heartbeat speed up? Do you sweat? Do your knees wobble? Does your throat go dry? Stomach churn?
A character’s dialogue, thoughts, and actions can also reveal her feelings, though. To avoid overwhelming readers with inward sensations, intersperse other elements into the revised version. For example:
Before: Justin felt nervous.
After: Sweat slicked Justin’s palms. Acid soured his stomach. Taking a deep breath, he stepped up to the microphone.
Backspace Is the Key to Moving Forward
As you edit your work, concentrate on identifying and curbing your sloppy habits. When I had trouble with my YA draft, I implemented the methods behind P.R.O.S.E. After fixing head hopping, replacing excessive ellipses (probably my biggest issue…) with action tags, just ousting overused words (Did I just mention just? Just another word I just can’t seem to get enough of!), slashing boring words and plucking vibrant ones from poetry, and showing instead of telling emotions, my beta readers turned into fans. My slush-pile manuscript became a standout submission that received contract offers from two different publishers. I wonder what these tips can do for your latest project?
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?