Mastering the art of prose is something writers often spend years doing. If only there were a list of easy-to-follow and actionable steps for revising prose–oh wait, here it is!
1. How to deal with clichés
One of the most devastating plagues of New Writer Prose is poorly handled clichés. And maybe you already know to avoid clichés in your own writing, but they’re not always bad!
Like any literary device or writing rule, there are many different ways to use them. Not only are clichés not evil, but they can actually be poignant and impactful phrases with a little reimagining.
New writers often default to using clichés because they’re a quick shortcut for getting to the point. They are phrases and terms that have been in public use for so long that most people can easily understand what they mean. A cliché kind of sounds like a pretty powerful tool, doesn’t it?
So how can we utilize the recognizability while also being original and avoiding stagnation? We’ll get into that, but first, let’s look at an example list of cliché phrases so we know exactly what we’re talking about.
Examples of clichés
- Back in the day
- All that glitters is not gold
- Gilded cage
- Ignorance is bliss
- Put out feelers
- Rain on my parade
- Better safe than sorry
- Stabbed him in the back
- Beggars can’t be choosers
- Blood ran cold
- Dip your toes
- Stealing candy from a baby
- Diamond in the rough
- Right up your alley
- Beating a dead horse
- Play your cards right
- All in due time
- Blood is thicker than water
- On thin ice
You likely know the meaning of all of these phrases. Clichés are a literary shortcut to get right to the point without taking the time to build your own phrase. This is why it can make your writing look lazy, because you’ve let someone else do the actual writing for you.
But like I said, they can be used creatively. We can take a cliché and reimagine it to bring new meaning. The swap-up doesn’t have to be big!
Changing a word, the order of words, or adding words to a cliché are easy ways to give them a new spin. This could be as simple as adding, removing, or changing a single word.
Let’s look to the master of lyrics, Taylor Swift herself, for an example. In The Archer, Swift takes the cliché “I see right through you” and turns it into, “I see right through me.” It is such a small change, but brings completely new meaning to the phrase.
Remixing a cliché could also look like building upon it.
In Look What You Made Me Do, Swift says, “And I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em.”
The classic hatchet cliché means to put away your “weapon” with the intent of not fighting again. This lyric says she’s willing to do that, but she has the resources to jump back into that fight if she needs to.
Turning a cliché on its head, rather than fully avoiding them, can be a unique and creative addition to your prose. It can also be funny. In Bo Burnham’s Repeat Stuff, he turns the phrase “beating a dead horse” into “we’ll quit beating this dead horse when it stops spitting out money.”
We needn’t fear clichés. They’re just another writing tool in our belt.
If you need help spotting clichés in your writing, check out clichefinder.
2. Using filters
Scanning your writing for filters is an easy edit that can have a huge impact. Filters are phrases and words that separate the reader from the story by placing a character between them.
Examples of filter phrases:
- I saw
- she heard
- he thought
- we noticed
- I realized
- they wondered
These phrases serve to remind the reader that they aren’t the one experiencing the story—a character is. In most cases, its best to trim out filter phrases, since they can both weaken the sentence and wreck reader immersion.
But, just like with cliché phrases, there are exceptions. A case where you might prefer to use filter phrases might be if you want to remind your audience that the character exists, or that they are the one experiencing something.
For example, an unreliable narration might benefit from filter phrases, if you want to pull the reader close and whisper: “Remember how you’re getting this story from a character’s limited perspective? Doesn’t it sound like they might be full of shit?”
You may find other situations where it makes sense to use a filter for framing a scene, as a stylistic choice, or for emphasis. But as a general practice, cut out those filters.
3. Scrutinize abstractions
An abstraction is an idea that is philosophical and emotional, not tangible.
Examples of abstract words:
With an abstraction, it’s impossible for your readers to visualize what you mean, because each will associate different things with that word. Where an abstraction is completely vague, concrete imagery is tangible description. Always default to using concrete imagery over abstractions.
A related school of thought is “show don’t tell,” which is a bit over-simplified, as three-word pieces of advice tend to be.
There are cases where showing is a bit unrealistic and telling would be clearer, as well as a few cases where you might want to use an abstraction. For example, a character might use an abstraction in their dialogue, or you might use an abstraction then go on to add concrete imagery.
To illustrate, think of this abstraction: Culture.
The word “culture” can mean wildly different things to every single reader. This makes it hard to actually convey what you mean, because you’re using a vague word that could mean lots of things.
So how do we solidify “culture” into something that could get every reader on the same page about what you mean? If I’m writing about Cajun culture, I’d use imagery of bayous, moss-dripped cypress trees, a table covered in boiled crawfish and potatoes and corn, a mawmaw and pawpaw speaking in hushed French on a porch.
With those bits of concrete imagery, we all understand what I meant with my particular use of the “culture.”
Abstractions don’t provide readers with a tactile understanding of what you want them to know. Check your writing for abstractions to replace them with concrete imagery.
4. Strike a balance
Striking a balance between staying concise while being thorough can be difficult, and there’s no one-size-fits-all rule to accomplish that balance in your writing.
A sentence is too long if your reader can’t remember how it began by the end of it.
A sentence is too long if it attempts to cover more than one idea.
Too many long sentences in a row could be overwhelming, while too many short sentences can be tedious.
Balance within a paragraph usually means mixing both long and short sentences.
Use only the words you need. Slice the rest.
Read your work out loud. Do any sentences trip your tongue?
If you were reading the story to someone else, would they have enough pauses to absorb what you said?
Aside from balance for readability, density, and pacing, we need to consider balance between dialogue and description. Too much dialogue can feel like a TEDtalk. Too little dialogue might make your reader feel like Will Smith in I Am Legend.
There are many things to consider when it comes to balanced writing, but the truth is that authors have to develop an eye for this. It’s an art, definitely not a science.
Seeking reader feedback can help you determine if you’re going overboard in either direction. But remember that readers come from different backgrounds and have unique tastes, so when your instincts oppose someone else’s opinions, go with your gut.
5. Surprise the reader
But Hannah, I thought we were talking about prose–not plot twists?
Surprises also apply to prose. Sentences can have twists, too! If you divert the expectations for how a sentence plays out, your readers are more likely to stay engaged with your story. Keep them on their toes! Don’t go for the most obvious thing.
A sentence twist could be something big and unmissable, almost like a punchline:
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
– Groucho Marx
Or it could be something as simple as changing a single word that the audience likely wouldn’t expect:
“The rainy night was cold, dark, and handsome.”
– a bad sentence I just came up with
Having an intriguing plot is important and irreplaceable, but a good plot is no excuse for boring prose. This doesn’t mean every sentence needs an unexpected twist, but try to think of ways to shake things up!
Swapping up the trajectory of a sentence can give a jolt to your reader and keep their attention on the story, giving you more engaging prose.
15 more strategies to strengthen your prose
Grab “How To Write Beautiful Prose,” where we cover tons more topics to hone your prose skills.