We all want to be better, more capable writers and it all starts with cleaner prose that closes up the distance between the author and the reader. Use this check list the next time you’re self-editing your fiction, as well as your memoir and poetry. You’re welcome!
- Use strong nouns and verbs and try to eliminate these weak adjectives and adverbs from your pages:
at the present time
by means of
considering the fact that
in order to
in spite of the fact that
in the event that
owing to the fact
- Avoid adverbial phrases beginning with “as.”
Using “as” indicates simultaneous action, which readers may have trouble picturing. Instead, write only one action at a time.
AVOID: As he walked to his car, John waved to his daughter as she raced her tricycle into a man as he jogged down the sidewalk.
STRONGER: John strolled to his car and waved to his daughter on her tricycle. Before he could yell a warning, she raced into a jogger on the sidewalk and knocked him down.
In fiction everything happens sequentially, one thing at a time, not all at once like in real life. Your job as the novelist is to break down simultaneous events in order, especially in your action writing.
- Eliminate redundancies—they can dilute your meaning!
6 a.m. in the morning
absolutely perfect (say “perfect”)
blistering hot (say “blistering”)
climbed up the stairs
nodded his head
red in color
rose to her feet
shrugged his shoulders
stood to his full height
stood up/rose up/climbed up
the reason why tiptoed quietly
- Vary your sentence structure, so you’re not using noun/verb/direct object all of the time—you’ll tire out your readers!
- Watch out for disruptive action reversals so the reader isn’t seeing the same things happen twice and you keep the action moving forward.
WEAK: He handed her his kerchief after dampening it with water from his canteen. [did he hand it to her then dampen it and then hand it back to her?]
STRONG: He dampened his kerchief with water from his canteen, and then handed it to her.
- Replace unnecessary dialogue tags with action. Action from a character that occurs within the same paragraph as dialogue from that character identifies the speaker, eliminating the need for “said.”
WEAK: “Come in the house this minute, young man!” Mom said with an angry scowl on her face.
STRONG: “Come in the house this minute, young man!” Mom slammed the screen door behind her and stood with her hands on her hips, an angry scowl on her face.
- Write in the positive. Tell us what was, not what wasn’t. Don’t write, “There was no light in the closet.” Instead say, “The closet was dark.” Don’t write, “She was not impressed with his repertoire.” Instead say, “I was unimpressed by his repertoire.”
- To avoid confusion, refer to your characters the same way every time—don’t sometimes use their first name, then their rank, then their last name.
- Don’t have body parts act on their own except the eyes (“His eyes widened”). So no “His mouth/lips curved into a smile” “His arm rested on the back of her seat.” “Her foot rubbed his under the table.” Instead, say, she rubbed her foot…she curved her lips….she waved.
- Cut out “began to” or “started to” unless you’re describing a step by step activity. Not “she started to laugh.” Say “she laughed.”
- Watch out that you don’t use a meaningful word twice on the same page, such as “alter” in one sentence and “alter” in the next sentence.
- Are you keeping track of time on the page, like how long it takes to get from here to there? I suggest making a time table so you don’t mess up your chronology.
What did I miss? Share with me in the comments!