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5 Stylistic Choices You Need to Stop Making

September 30, 2021

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

The Issue

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.”

 

The Solution

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

The Issue

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.

 

The Solution

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

The Issue

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.

 

The Solution

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 Issue

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.

 

The Solution

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

The Issue

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.

 

The Solution

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?

7 Comments

  1. Joelle Stone

    Ooh, another acronym!! Thanks so much for this, Miss Scott! Just what I needed. 😉

    Reply
    • Lori Scott

      Thank you!

  2. Malachi Tarchannen

    Having read mostly classics, it is no surprise that I commit the errors of these long-standing literary works. It’s a wonder these famous titles are still around.

    So how is it we “know better” in our day? Why is an omniscient POV taboo? Have readers gotten lazier (my suspicion) or do modern writers not know how to write a classic (probable)?

    I see shorter sentences these days, indicating a falling out of the Dickens method, where entire pages are consumed by a single punctuation, where a series of interconnected thoughts merge, tangle, and swirl together in a stew of synonyms, mirrored text, and lists, each one purposed and leading the reader into deeper levels of thought and higher planes of experience. But that was then.

    What is the purpose of style if not to craft according to it? Should one man’s style resemble another? Does that not create the unwelcome trope of “pulp” fiction? Should we not aim for creativity, which in many cases has us breaking with certain conventions? I would not espouse omitting the basic rules of grammar, for instance, but the occasional ellipsis…

    Perhaps the advice should be more about how not to abuse the device, which we are wont to do. Rather than jettison the baby, should we not clean the bathwater? I, too, struggle with several–shall we say, “stylistic”–proclivities, and I understand that today’s modern reader will likely find this unpalatable to his–shall we not say, “refined”–tastes.

    I still use double spaces behind each sentence. I still refer to the unknown sex as “he.” I still use words that might fly over the readers’ heads. On purpose. Also, I use fragments. And as the cherry on top, my characters use dialect–written out phonetically, which I think, as one of my beloved characters would say, “Dees ees a good ting.”

    In closing, I enjoyed your article, and I know I have many things yet to revise in my text. I am left wondering, though, whether the use of a thing is not the problem but the abuse is. Is there a difference, or am I doomed to appealing only to those who, like me, have feasted primarily on classic literature that demands thought and not the modern reader who prefers a quick hit of emotional pabulum?

    Reply
    • Lori Scott

      Wow! What an insightful comment. The tips I suggested helped me improve my prose, and it was my goal to pass those on. However, you make some valid points. I tip my hat to you!

  3. Rachel L

    These are such great reminders! I wish I had known some of these rules earlier in my writing. Telling emotions especially–I find that one even in published novels sometimes. It’s sneaky. 😝

    Reply
    • Lori Scott

      I’m glad you found it helpful! Yay!

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