How to Tighten Your Prose

Brevity and clarity often go hand-in-hand. Tightening your prose makes it more readable and provides an immersive experience for your reader. So how do you do this?

Choose Strong Verbs Instead of Adverbs

In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously said (see what I did there?), “The road to hell is paved in adverbs.”

And while that would be one very slowly winding road with some badly laid brickwork, it could be so much better! Nix the adverbs in favor of strong verbs. An adverb is a word that describes a verb. Instead of “very slowly windingand “badly laid,” make it a meandering road with overlapping cobblestones and suddenly the image is much more vivid.

Adverbs have their place, but when you see one in your writing, ask yourself if there’s a strong verb you could use instead. Nine times out of ten, the strong verb will improve the sentence.

Reduce the Number of Glue Words

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

A glue word is a word that doesn’t carry much meaning, but is necessary to hold a sentence together. ProWritingAid does a great job of explaining this in their Sticky Sentences report. Words such as “the,” “and,” “a,” and “with” are considered glue words.

For example:

The forest we were walking through used to be a park, all manicured lawn and perfectly mulched circles around the trees that were permitted to grow here.

Fourteen of the words in that sentence are glue words! Glue words aren’t necessarily bad, and are sometimes a matter of voice and style, but reducing them can give a clearer flow to your writing. For example, that sentence could be rewritten as:

The forest was once a park with manicured lawns and mulched circles beneath groomed trees. 

The style changed, but the meaning remained the same. With six glue words, we’re left with a more concise and readable sentence.

Omit Redundant Words and Repetition

Redundant words are words that you can cut without changing the meaning of the sentence. Repeated words include obvious things like the same word in the sentence and less obvious things like starting multiple sentences with the same word or structure.

His electric car whirred along the road, sending up plumes of dust behind the car.

The use of the word “car” twice in this sentence is needless repetition while “along the road” is a redundant phrase because it is implied that the car is on the road.

This sentence can be re-written as:

His electric car whirred, sending up plumes of dust. 

Eliminate Filtering

Image by SplitShire from Pixabay

Filtering refers to using phrases such as:

I felt

I heard

I saw

I tasted

I smelled

These phrases effectively remove the reader from the protagonist’s perspective and result in a more distanced look at the scene. Reading becomes more like watching someone participate in the story rather than the reader feeling like they are part of it.

Consider the following sentence:

I heard a rustle in the thicket ahead.

The reader is removed from the action in the above sentence. But we can rewrite it to make it more immediate:

Dry leaves crackled in the thicket ahead. 

Now the reader is experiencing the noise rather than watching the protagonist. And, bonus, it’s more vivid! Win-Win.

Practice Writing Short Fiction

Even if you are a novelist, practice writing short. Try your hand at writing microfiction, flash fiction, or short stories, and your writing will become stronger for it.

A microfiction piece is a story with a beginning, middle, and end contained within a minimal amount of words. It is a subset of flash fiction and can be quite short. Many microfiction literary magazines request pieces of 100 words or less while others request about 250 words.

Flash fiction is the broader category that includes microfiction. Like microfiction, flash fiction aims to tell a story within a short word count. According to Reedsy, flash fiction can range from 5 to 1500 words.

Next is the short story. Reedsy defines a short story as usually 3000 to 7000 words.

Read short fiction and try writing it. There are many literary magazines that focus on shorter fiction and are a great source of inspiration. Working within a set word count forces you to focus on the power of your words and tends to result in tighter prose.

Image by rihaij from Pixabay

Final Thoughts

When you’re drafting, write the words as they come to you. But when you’re editing, look for ways to tighten your prose to make it an immersive experience for the reader. If you keep an eye out for adverbs, glue words, repetition, redundancy, and filtering, you’ll be well on your way to writing strong, immersive stories.

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