Letting Air into Your Prose

The process of writing consists of thousands of micro decisions. The search for the bon mot can consume hours of agonized mental wrestling, muttered curses, hunts in a thesaurus, and hopefully end with a bolt out of the blue that feels just right. For those writers who like exactitude in their writing, this ongoing ordeal can lead, however, to tight, impenetrable prose. You can tighten the screws so much on a sentence-by-sentence basis that the reader is not allowed inside the story as a whole. 

For the concise at heart, how much air are you willing to let into your narrative? How approachable should it be? If you yourself are growing fatigued after you review a long paragraph—itself a hallmark of dense writing—you should consider several tradecraft techniques that make the prose less impenetrable. 

The first is consciously examining individual words. Look at a thesaurus-inspired choice such as “obdurate.”  While I love this word, it lies on a higher level of diction than synonyms like “tough” or “flinty.” Or, if you really want the word’s exact meaning, look at the rest of the sentence. Do you also have other high-toned words that a reader has to process? Maybe “obdurate” stays and those other words could become more common.

Another reason for too-tight prose is sentence construction. I’ll leave complex and compound sentences aside, and concentrate instead on the use of active (as opposed to passive) sentences. If you have ruthlessly eliminated “there is” and “it is” from your prose—which I definitely recommend in general—you might want to be more forgiving. You can torture a sentence just to avoid using “there is.” Rather than redlining every such clause, ask yourself: am I introducing a new setting, etc., that needs the sort of introduction that “there is” provides? You may find that occasional use of the passive sentence opens up the prose.

Finally, you can use narrative devices that let in air, especially dialogue. You can’t tighten up too much how people talk; you’ll know it sounds artificial, not to mention dated, like a Victorian novel. Sure, your intelligent characters could use a better vocabulary, but everyone except the New York literati is reduced to “you know” every once in a while.

Exercise: Rather than rigorously changing every cliché into an original (and possibly confusing) statement, write out an alternative on a provisional basis, to be read a week or so from now. When you check back, compare the two and make a decision then. You may find that a third choice springs out at you—and that’s the right choice.

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.”
—Doug Larson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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