Polish Your Prose

When I began edits on Division, my first book, I had no idea where to begin. I can distinctly recall how overwhelmed I felt, how uncertain. Now, however, I love editing. First drafts are the most difficult for me, second drafts are the most fun, and third drafts are…well, the most tedious, but also the most straight forward. I no longer worry if I will be able to fix my turd-heap of a first draft. I’ve done it before, after all.

I decided to write up this post to give newer writers a peak into my process for polishing prose. This is an important step, and one I think is too often overlooked. It is the task I reserve for the third draft, but I usually can’t stop myself from doing a bit of this during the second draft as well.

For the purposes of demonstration, I have chosen a particularly weak passage from my current WIP. I typically do these edits in small chunks of about this size or a little shorter.

Here is the lousy fist draft version:

There’s a lot not working about this passage. It isn’t painting a strong picture at all, the writing is a bit awkward, and it isn’t creating enough tension. Writing should be vibrant, purposeful, immersive, and pleasing to the ear. This passage fails on all accounts.

So here’s how I fix it:

Step 1: Fix Big Problems

The first thing I do is look for sentences that are completely failing. If the sentence’s spirit-animal is a panda toppling out of a bamboo tree, it needs to be reconsidered. At this step, I look to scrap and rewrite elements that aren’t working. This could mean replacing one bad sentence with one good sentence. Or replacing one bad sentence with one good paragraph. Or eliminating that bad sentence altogether.

The point, here, is that there is no sense worrying about punching up the verbs or cutting the needless adjectives in a sentence that’s falling on its face to begin with. Don’t waste your time polishing a turd. Ask yourself:

Does this sentence read badly? Is it confusing or unclear? Does it paint a strong enough picture? Does it look or sound awkward? Is it communicating all that is needs to? Does it spark the right kind of emotions? Should it be punchier, more flowery, or more…something else?

Here are the big problems in my passage:

In fact, the more I looked at this passage, the more I realized that nearly the whole thing needed to be scrapped. Sure, I could fix the awkward sentences. But why bother when the whole thing is flat and fails to immerse the reader? So I typed up a new version:

This is, as you can see, a good bit longer. But it is setting the scene in a way that the previous version didn’t. I’ve added several action beats and details so make the scene more vivid. I slowed down a bit, to increase the tension. This new version is also much clearer. But, it is still far from perfect. So on to the next step!

Step 2: Add specificity

I have a lot of theories about the value of creating more unique and specific imagery in a scene. I wrote about it in my most esoteric blog post about inscape. But the general idea is this: adding the occasional punch of specificity to a scene helps to make it more vivid, more memorable, and lends your world greater texture. So look at your text and see if there are any opportunities to do this (without overdoing it).

I identified one solid opportunity. Saying that several curtains are stirring either makes it seem as if they are all moving at once, which is not the intended meaning and would be unlikely. Either that, or it seems as if he is summarizing several events as he moves along, which doesn’t provide the immediacy I’m looking for. So it would be better to have one set of curtains stir, and to describe them, as this is a minor world-building opportunity. Like so:

My world is pseudo-Victorian in era and style, so I made the curtains floral and gave them tassels. I deliberately did not specify the kind of flowers or the fabric, however, because this character would not think of such things.

Step 3: Consider the verbs

The easiest way to strengthen a passage is to strengthen its verbs. The verb is like the mitochondrion of the sentence; it’s the powerhouse. The right verb is both strong and precise in meaning. So, first, pick out all of the verbs in the section of text you’re polishing. Then ask yourself if there is a more powerful or more exact word that would be better. Careful not to choose a stronger word at the expense of exactness of meaning. Consult a thesaurus as necessary. If changing the verb necessitates the tweaking of other elements of the sentence, see to it.

Most of these verbs were already working, but there were certainly a few that could be either strengthened for made more precise. “Trudge” made him sound too exhausted. “Barked” is fine, but I thought “howl” might me more atmospheric. “Looked” is OK, but as he is peeking quickly over his shoulder, I can use a stronger and more precise verb. The others I considered and decided that they were good choices, or at the very least that I could think of none better. “Grunt” might sound a little caveman-y, for example, but it feels right for the character.  Here’s the improved verbs:

“Trod” has the same meaning, but sounds less labored. I thought “notice” had a more precise meaning than “watch.” “Witnessed” seemed truer to the purpose than “seen.” Also, I felt that “discerned,”  to make-out a difference, was an improvement on “detected.” And with that settled, we move on to the next step!

Step 4: Word Diversity

Look for unintentional word and sound repetitions. Great prose is made up of varied and engaging words. Sometimes repetition is unavoidable, and sometimes it can be used for effect. But otherwise, strive for variety.

Using the text statistics in Scrivener, I identified five words that had been repeated in a very short space. Next, I look to see which one would be better to change, and if a change is possible (sometimes it isn’t). Here’s what I landed on:

Step 5: Trim it Down

Next, look to cut any unnecessary words. Pay particular attention to adverbs, ‘that’s, prepositional phrases, articles, and needless adjectives. Cutting fat makes for tighter, more energetic prose. Here’s what I chose to cut:

Step 6: Punch It Up!

Skim through and look for any opportunity to make this section more remarkable. Maybe add a simile, or a short, punchy sentence. Can you make it more beautiful? Can you up the tension?

I split up Peer’s pause and the silence that follows into two sentences, because shorter sentences add tension. This section isn’t particularly important, so I didn’t see the need to add any more flowery language here.

Step 7: Check the Rhythm

Lastly, I read the passage aloud to make sure the sound is working (or I let the robot inside my laptop read it aloud for me). I listen especially for a variety of sentence length and structure. If I find myself stumbling over a sentence, it likely needs to be reworked. Well written prose is musical.

I changed only one sentence in this step. Upon reading it aloud, I realized that I had two compound sentences in a row, each with “and” as the conjunction. This made the paragraph sound singsongy. It was simple enough to change. And with that, I am pleased with this section of text and ready to move on to the next.

And that’s it! If you compare this last version to the first, I think you’ll find a significant improvement. I continue on in this way through the entire scene, and then I repeat steps 4 and  7 for the scene as a whole—checking to make sure I don’t have too much word repetition and that everything flows well.

It might seem like a long process, and it is in a way. But I find that the more I write and edit, the more I internalize these guidelines, and the better my first drafts turn out. This scene was one that needed a lot of work, but there are many pages in this particular draft that need much less attention.

And, just to be clear, this is the step I take just before sending the manuscript to my editor. This is an edit, but certainly not the final one. I also do not begin this step until after I am confident that the overall story is working–that the pacing is sound, and characters are interesting, and the events build purposefully towards a conclusion.

It’s a lot of work, getting a manuscript ready for publication. But with so many poorly edited books on Amazon, this is one straightforward and very doable way that you can make your work stand out. You might think that readers don’t notice or care about this sort of nitty-gritty editing. But stories are made up of sentences and words; with more powerful words and more effecting sentences, you can build a better story. And readers will take note.

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