More than a few aspiring writers I know struggle with this one. Their prose is bad, chopped up, and grammatically incorrect. I hate to read it almost as much as I’d love to see them improve. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your prose. Maybe it looks like a ten-year-old wrote it, or someone illiterate. If so, I’m giving you my top ten tips for how to improve your prose. Don’t expect to become a Shakespeare overnight, but I promise you: if you practice these tips to the latter, you will see a noticeable change in your writing.
Tip #5: Read the Kind of Prose You Want to Write
This one’s a big one. If you want to become a great magician, train under the best magicians in the world. Barring that, train under the magicians that you’d like to emulate. Doubtless you’ve eyed some writer and said, “Boy, would I like to write like him or her. His or her prose amazes me.”
If you always have in mind a model of what kind of prose you want to be writing, it’s easy to distinguish between that and something you don’t want to write. Compare Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Compare Shakespeare with James Riley or E. Nesbit. Prose varies greatly, and you will probably end up creating your own unique style. But first, you need to peg a target on a tree and shoot for it: Read the kind of prose you want to write.
Tip #4: Write Consciously
It’s no good to read a textbook and neglect the exercises. If you want to get better, you’ll work that brain. You’ll give yourself a chance to show that you’ve retained what you’ve read. You will do the problems while keeping the tips and tricks that you’ve learned at the forefront of your mind.
So it is when you aim to improve your prose. You have to write like your favorite author. Ask yourself: “If Tolstoy (I have not yet known a writer who sought to emulate Tolstoy, but I suppose anything could happen) were writing this, what would he say? What would he mention and/or notice around the scene? What words would he use?
This kind of writing may be harder, but this is a sign that you’re doing it right. You have to analytically consider whether you will use a certain sentence or not, or even a certain vocabulary word. This is your practice. Soon, you will do this without trying so hard, but that part comes later.
Tip #3: If You Need to, Copy Similes, Metaphors, and Expressions From your Favorite Fiction
This is closely linked to the last phase, in that this too is practice. In the final product of any piece of writing, you don’t want to be nailed for plagiarism, so don’t publish a work before editing these out. I wouldn’t recommend putting these in a work in progress, though, so practice these in an outside document.
This process consists of finding word choices, phrases, and expressions used by your favorite author(s) and using them, word for word, in your own narrative. Using the words of the best help you to formulate your own cool-sounding phrases and expressions. This is purely for practical purposes, so don’t go using unique expressions of other authors, flaunting them as your own. But this is good practice.
Tip #2: Learn to Tell the Difference Between Good Prose and Bad Prose
Let me make this simple for you: Your prose before you get better = Bad prose. Published-author-whom-you-like-like’s prose = Good prose. The closer it is to your exemplar, the better it is. The farther it is away from cool sounding (in your opinion) the worse it is.
This one may seem simple, and it really is. Just don’t ignore the times when you begin to slip into old habits of bad prose. Spot it and remove it.
Tip #1: Don’t Settle for “Good Enough”
Correction: Never, EVER settle for “good enough”. That’s a phrase I hate. There is “good”, and everything else is “bad”. If you think something occupies a kind of middle ground, you are sorely cheating yourself. If it does not satisfy you, it’s not good enough. If you are only a little unsatisfied, know that you’ve written bad work.
If you have written something that you don’t think is good enough, change it. Modify it. Start over if you have to. If your goal is to write in a style that E. Nesbit would envy, don’t stop with work that’s just a little less than that. If you let yourself do this, just know that it’s the first step to a lapse in your prose.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!