Monday, November 11, 2013

Fine-Tuning Your Prose, PART I


Writing is rewriting. Reshaping early drafts to create a compelling tale that hurtles along may require major surgery. However, this month’s column is about the finer craft of microsurgery:  strengthening and accelerating your prose, word by word, and sentence by sentence.
To enliven your prose and eliminate drag, consider the following tips.

1.      Concentrate on Nouns and Verbs
A common mistake of novice writers is to doll-up drab prose by painting on colorful adjectives and adverbs. But overuse of adjectives and adverbs makes the writing flabby, and often leads to flowery or “purple” passages that are the sign of an amateur. The real key to intensifying your prose is to focus on nouns and verbs.
Nouns and verbs are the power words of language, the words that tell the story. That’s because our direct experience (before we interpret it) is simply of people, things and places (= nouns) interacting (= verbs). Nouns and verbs provide the clarity of detail and the drama of action. Consider newspaper headlines; generally, they consist only of nouns and verbs, yet they tell the essential facts: Python Attacks Baby; Mom Strangles Snake.
Vivid writing is concrete and specific. Readers can picture precise nouns easier than generic nouns. “A bug smashed against the windshield” is less specific (and less vivid) than “A dragonfly smashed against the windshield.”
This rule even applies to similes and metaphors, which are richer when you select specific nouns. “She eats like a bird” is not as easy to picture as “She eats like a sparrow.” (Or does she eat like a vulture?)
Of course these rules of thumb are not absolutes, but a matter of each writer’s personal art. Here are three versions of the same metaphor. Which do you prefer?
Deep in her brain, lives a reptile.”
“Deep in her brain, lives a crocodile.”
“In the basement of her brain, lives a crocodile.”
Perhaps you don’t like any of them. (That’s why the DELETE key is a writer’s best friend.) Nevertheless, the third version, with specific nouns, is the easiest to visualize.

2.      Turbocharge Verbs and Toss Out Adverbs
Weak verbs need the crutch of adverbs; strong verbs stride on their own.Stephen King wrote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) was so opposed to adverbs that he managed to write an entire novel, Amor, without using them. Compare these two sentences (the second uses a stronger verb and no adverb):
·               She set down the phone angrily.
·               She slammed down the phone.

Now imagine a whole novel filled with adverbs propping up lazy verbs and you’ll understand how adverbs blunt the edge of your writing.
Adverbs aren’t needed in attributions; they provide an explanation that treats the reader as a dummy: “‘You’re the mango of my eye,’ he said, lovingly.” (This kind of flab is made fun of in a type of joke called a Tom Swifty: “I’ll have mustard on mine,” Tom said frankly.”)
By scrimping on adverbs, you eliminate “echo”—in which the adverb repeats the meaning already given by the verb. (The alarm blared loudly. The flames burned hotly. Her teeth clenched tightly.)

3.      Convert From Passive to Active Sentence Construction
When you use the “passive voice” the target of the action in your sentence gets promoted to the prominent position, where the doer belongs. For example, “Her house was burned down by the soldiers” is less vivid than “The soldiers burned down her house.” The first sentence is passive construction; the second, active. Stay on the alert for the prepositions “by” or “through”—which mark the passive voice.

4.      Convert Negative to Positive Statements.
Check to see if facts you have stated negatively (“the lines were not straight”) can be made more vivid by stating them positively (“the lines squiggled”).

5.      Replace Abstract Adjectives with Concrete Descriptions
 As with generic nouns, abstract adjectives (“beautiful,” “ugly,” “good,” “bad,” “young,” “old,” “small,” “big”) offer an imprecise image.
Ask yourself, “How ‘big’ is ‘big’”? If you mention “a big whale,” your reader can only vaguely picture its size. But if you write, “a whale the size of a school bus,” you’ve provided a concrete image.
Also, be wary of intensifier words, such as “very” and “quite,” which are used to bolster weak adjectives (“quite sad” does not convey the richness of “morose.”)

Reality check: No amount of fine-tuning individual words and sentences will revive a lifeless story. On the other hand, a first-rate story often can make up for second-rate prose (as seen in not a few blockbusters) because readers respond first and foremost to CHARACTERS and PLOT, the subjects of my two earlier posts. 

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