10 Steps to Punch Up Your Prose

Photo © 2009 Sam Davis CC BY-ND 2.0

If you read a lot, you’ve probably read at least one author you admire. Her words seem to flow through your heart like a river. And ever since you’ve been putting together your own sentences on paper, you’ve perhaps wished that you could work literary magic as she. You may not realize, much of the magic you’re seeking comes from basic principles of writing and editing, principles of style.

When I first discovered these principles, in Patricia T. O’Connor’s book Words Fail Me, they instantly transformed my writing from worse-even-than-Twilight to passably readable. Later, other writers referred me to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Both of these I’ve found invaluable parts of my writing library, and every writer ought to internalize the principles therein.

So how do you punch up your prose? Here are 10 simple steps you can take that will instantly improve your style, highlight your point, impress your readers, attract the opposite sex, and make you better in bed. Well, maybe not those last two. (Although… Who knows?)

  1. Get rid of the verb to be. Strengthening your verbs is the most important thing you can do to punch up your prose. That is, put as much of the meaning as you can into the verb, and not into words surrounding the verb. But “being” verbs, like am, is, was, and are, are the weakest verbs of all. They contain so little meaning that some languages omit them altogether. So wherever you have the verb to be, see if you can rephrase to show instead of tell.

    Example: “The classroom was small.” âž” “We squeezed into the classroom.”

  2. Change the passive voice into the active. A variation on #1 above, a passive-voice sentence has the action of the sentence happening to the subject. With the active voice, on the other hand, the subject of the sentence is doing the action. Active voice has more power, so prefer it.

    Example: “I was invited to go along on the trip.” âž” “Mike invited me to go along on the trip.”

  3. Turn adverbs into better verbs, adjectives into better nouns. Adverbs usually try to make up for deficiencies in your verb, so see if you can replace it with a verb that contains in itself the force of the adverb. Similarly, adjectives often try to make up for deficiencies in a noun, so see if you can find a better noun, one that won’t require an adjective.

    Example: “She shouted at me angrily.” âž” “She raged at me.”

  4. Use simple words. Some writers try to make up for having nothing worthwhile to say by saying it with pomp. They think that if they use enough syllables, it’ll make them sound important. Don’t do that. Short words can be powerful, too. And you’ll make a stronger impression if you don’t require your readers to get out their dictionary twice a page. Put away the thesaurus, if you need to. Especially, get rid of nominalized verbs, those nouns that really identify the action of the sentence.

    Example: “We utilized measurements that had been made, of certain thermodynamic properties of the test sample.” âž” “We measured the test sample’s temperature and pressure.”

    Another example: “Throughout all this conversation, my eyes flickered again and again to the table where the strange family sat.” âž” “As we talked, I kept glancing over at the strange family.” (Your eyes flickered, Gracie?)

  5. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be specific. Vagueness is for politicians. No one should ever need to doubt “what the definition of is is.” (Because you shouldn’t be using the word is, anyhow.) Again, look for vague, broad statements, and see if you can rewrite to give specifics, or at least specific examples, that will show rather than tell.

    Example: “Some opposition figures also questioned the government’s sincerity.” âž” “Joe Schmo, former opposition leader, said he suspected the current regime of making unreasonable demands, knowing they would undermine the negotiations, leaving power in the status quo.”

  6. Delete unneeded words. Add information with each phrase and sentence; don’t just repeat yourself for effect. Remove prepositional phrases and other modifiers that repeat information given in the verb.

    Example: “As I passed, he suddenly went rigid in his seat. He stared at me again, meeting my eyes with the strangest expression on his face — it was hostile, furious.” âž” “As I passed, he stiffened in his seat, staring fury into my eyes.”

  7. Move verbs closer to their subjects. Sometimes, writers get carried away inserting phrases into the middle of a sentence. But in general, you should keep related concepts together, and unrelated concepts apart. That means that the verb should be close to its subject, and modifiers should be close to the words they modify.

    Example: “All copyrighted and copyrightable materials, including but not limited to the text, design, manuals, product information, graphics, images, pictures, sound and other files, and the selection and arrangement thereof are copyrighted, all rights reserved, by Provider or its licensors.” âž” “Provider has reserved all copyrights in all copyrightable materials, including blah blah blah.”

  8. Transform negative sentences into positive ones. You can use the word not to deny a falsehood or to contrast another statement. But don’t use it to evade saying what you want to say. (This is especially important for new parents to remember.)

    Example: “Don’t eat the crayons!” âž” “Crayons are for coloring books; food is for eating.”

  9. Split up long sentences and phrases. Don’t get the wrong idea: shorter sentences are not necessarily better than longer ones. You should vary the length of your sentences, long and short. The danger is that you may end up mixing unrelated ideas into the same sentence or phrase. If you have a long sentence, see if you should split up ideas into multiple phrases, to keep atomic ideas intact.

    Example: “The User’s personal information shall be subject to the Company Privacy Policy, as it may be changed, updated or amended by the Company from time to time, which policy is hereby incorporated as a part of this Agreement.” âž” “The User’s personal information shall be subject to the Company Privacy Policy. That policy is hereby incorporated as a part of this Agreement. Further, the Company may update it from time to time, and the latest version of the policy will be in force at any given time.” (Note also “changed, updated or amended,” and compare #6 above on unneeded words.)

  10. Move the punchline to the end of the sentence. The “punchline” is usually the new information in the sentence, like the punchline of a joke. It’s the part you wouldn’t have guessed by yourself. And the end of the sentence is usually the most prominent place, like the throne in the throne room, so whatever you put there will naturally get the spotlight. That’s why the punchline of a joke goes at the end and not in the middle. Consider whether the emphasis is where it ought to be.

    Example: “We lapsed back into silence as we finished eating.” âž” “As we resumed eating, we lapsed into silence.” (The silence is what makes a difference in the story. Nobody really cares that the characters were eating.)

You may have noticed, I pulled a number of examples from Twilight, a book that I love to take pot shots at, because it presents such a huge target. Other examples I pulled from a news report, my own memory and creativity, and legal agreements— again, because they present such a huge target. Yes, maybe some lawyers are scared of drafting legal agreements that the parties to the agreement might actually be able to understand, and if your lawyer is of that sort, you have my pity, but I’m still not offering you legal advice, because I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a writer. As a writer, I could have pulled examples from my own early-early writings. Fortunately, most of them have slipped into the dustbowl of time.

May your journey to writing competence be less bumpy than mine.

Keep writing!


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