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Submitted on
February 8, 2011
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For the short of time, patience or remaining-eyesight: here is a quick, ten-point tutorial for better prose.

The points are drawn from books, articles, casually-offered-advice and my own experience. Much like the Ten Commandments, they aren't all concrete rules. Just things to strongly keep in mind.

1. Vary sentence structure.
-> In particular, avoid starting every line with "I..." or "He..."
-> Try to vary your sentence length too.

2. Don't repeat words within a sentence.
-> Or too many times in sentences that follow each other.
-> Avoid repeated use of character names by using he/she where possible.

3. Avoid adverbs.
-> They clutter sentences and there's usually a better way.
-> Ask yourself, "Does this add any new information?"

4. Swap "which" for "that" where possible.
-> This is black magic. It just sounds better.
-> Also avoid "however".

5. Make pairs of adjectives different.
-> Think "big strong" as opposed to "huge gigantic".
-> Also try to avoid over-used or clichéd descriptions.

6. Check your metaphors. Double-check your similes.
-> They always need to make at least a small amount of sense.
-> If they don't, they'll jerk the reader out of the story.

7. Don't overuse exclamation marks or ellipses.
-> And really don't double them!!
-> Overuse of "exotic" punctuation can distract a reader from your writing.

8. Remove speech tags where possible. Where not possible, use "he/she said".
-> Words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried" are distracting.
-> Make sure the reader always knows who's talking.

9. Avoid the passive voice.
-> "Bob carried Julia" is active. "Julia was carried by Bob" is passive.
-> Talk about people doing things, not having things done to them.

10. Read it out loud.
-> You can often hear problems better than you can see them.
-> At the very least, you'll catch more typos this way!
I know, I know. Two tutorials uploaded in one evening. I've been doing a lot of thinking around this sort of stuff while I try to edit one of my own stories.

Like it says at the top, try not to take this as some sort of Gospel truth. It's just the sort of thing I like to tape to my wall.


Found this helpful? Point your browser here for the rest of my tutorials.
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Astrikos Jul 2, 2013   General Artist
Featured your helpful deviation here. :love:
MetalMagpie Jul 3, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. :)
Astrikos Jul 4, 2013   General Artist
Never mind, I figured out what you meant, about speech tags.
MetalMagpie Jan 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Good good. Sorry if that isn't very clear.

(And sorry it's taken me so long to reply! My life has been chaos for the last few months.)
What do you mean by "remove speech tags where possible"?
Ryuu-Izou Feb 28, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Love it! :D

Just one thing:

8. Remove speech tags where possible. Where not possible, use "he/she said".
-> Words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried" are distracting.
-> Make sure the reader always knows who's talking.

Why shouldn't I use words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried"?
MetalMagpie Feb 28, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
This is an often-stated rule, but one that not everyone agrees with. The reason for it usually given is that words like "yelled" and "cried" are distracting, whereas words like "said" and "replied" are neutral and invisible.

If you have well-written dialogue, it should be already apparent how the character is speaking from the words they use and the actions they use around the speech.

Compare these two lines of dialogue:
1. "Well, I don't like it," grumbled Jane.
2. "Well, I don't like it," said Jane, folding her arms.

The second puts more emphasis on the character's words and actions. The word "grumbled" is used by the narrator to tell the reader how they should interpret Jane's mood. Readers tend to be more engaged when they're forced to do some of their own interpretation of scenes, instead of just being spoon fed. This is part of the "show, don't tell" rule.

But the main problem with using too many colourful alternatives to "said" is that - when a lot of them are used together - it can make the prose style appear cluttered. Again, this draws focus away from the lines of dialogue themselves.

"Quick!" cried John. "The zombies are breaking through!"

"What are we going to do?" whined Alice.

"We're all going to die!" screamed Mary.

"Shut up all of you and listen!" roared Albert. "I've got a plan!"

With more "interesting" words in place of the simple "said", the reader notices them a lot more. And none of them are required. The content of the lines themselves should be enough to tell how each one is spoken.

"Quick!" said John. "The zombies are breaking through!"

"What are we going to do?" said Alice.

"We're all going to die!" said Mary.

"Shut up all of you and listen!" said Albert. "I've got a plan!"

However, everyone has their favourite alternatives to "said" that they refuse to stop using. Mine are "muttered" and "snapped". The first one I use because I struggle to demonstrate that a character is talking quietly without it. The latter I think has more punch than "said" for certain lines.

The important thing is not to completely rid your prose of these words, but to be aware of how many you use and (more importantly) be aware of why you're using them. There are often far better things you can do to get the same information across.
Kitsunechann Oct 25, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Lol while I agree with the top part, replacing the "louder" words with "said" in those for lines brought me back to a Scooby-doo trap. If you ever watched it, you might remember their set-up's.

Shaggy, completely straight faced: "Oh no... my foot appears to be stuck in this crevice! I guess I'll just have to wait for the big scary monster to come get me. I'm sooooo scared."

xD That's just how I imagined it. Even with the exclamation marks, "said" seems very repetitive and bland to me.
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