A Complete Buffoon’s Guide to Writing Words on Paper

Some people just can’t write, and that’s a fact. I’ve met a few people who, for the life of them, can’t not write sentences like this one: “Peter dashed forward and unsheathed his sword and sliced the enemy in the chest and backed up pulling his sword from his enemy’s chest although it was poisoned so he didn’t have long to live.”

It hurts my eyeballs to read that, and it probably hurts yours too. Some people can’t help but write really badly: it’s almost like a disability, in my estimation. Now, look: I’m not trying to insult anyone, but you can’t be a writer if your final draft looks like the paragraph above. It’s simply unacceptable.

But often, the reason some people write this way is because they don’t know any better. Put simply, these people don’t know what good prose looks like. (and before you start pushing your glasses higher up your nose and saying, “Well, what does it look like then?” I promise to only reference renowned authors as authorities)

So, if you’re reading this and you’re utterly clueless when it comes to writing legible prose, I’m going to give you the best tips I can on the subject. Trying to write stories while having terrible, disgusting prose is like trying to write a comic book with doodles of people on the panels. It’s infantile. Time to grow up.

First of all, if your prose sucks as bad as my example, I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that you only ready a book once in a blue moon. You can’t write a scientific research paper without first doing your homework, and you can’t write books without being a bibliophile. As the saying goes, every fighter pilot was once a kid who watched Top Gun (does it really say that?).

So the best way to alleviate this burden from your shoulders is to read 2-3 hours a day. There are other tips I can give you, but this is the single most important thing I can recommend. Great fantasy authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Brandon Sanderson were once the most nerdy of book lovers. If you want to become one of the greats, you have to read. There’s no way around it.

So yeah, you need to read more. What else? Well, forget what they taught you in English class. Writing doesn’t have to do with the study of English as much as it has to do with the essence of English. You’re not looking for perfect spelling: that’s a prerequisite. You’re looking to use whatever words, sounds, and syllables to make your reader think the right thing.

When I was a kid and was reading The Chronicles of Narnia, I was shocked to see everything that didn’t comport with what I knew about English. I would go to my mom and tell her all about the grammatical errors in Prince Caspian, lamenting the fact that my favorite author had sinned so grieviously.

Eventually, I realized that the point of writing was not to be perfect from a grammatical standpoint. You could get away with sentence fragments and made-up words. However, the point of these amendments is to communicate things to the reader that could not otherwise be conveyed with traditional English.

Of course, you’re gonna want to work the typos out of your story, but if you follow the rigid “always have a subject and a predicate and never use sentence fragments and if it’s not in the dictionary take it out and always use this sentence structure and pattern with this opener” you’re not going to get very far as a writer. Remember: your guide for good grammar is found in bestselling novels, not your English textbook.

Then, I’d like to introduce you to the holy trinity of fiction writing prose rules: Don’t over-adverb, never put a comma where a period or semicolon should be, and never, EVER write in the passive voice. I promise you this will solve about 90% of your problems with prose, with perhaps one other rule thrown in there.

Stephen King was not fond of adverbs. (well, duh) Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, said that most adverbs should be taken out but not altogether. Over-adverbing, on the other hand, is something to be avoided at all costs. Treat adverbs like salt: a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, and suddenly the dish becomes tasty. Over-salt it, and it’s inedible. (or, in this case, illegible)

Similarly, “over-commaing” your prose can lead to some really terrible results. For example, take the following sentence: “Pons wasn’t making much progress, his foot was broken.” Yuck. That sentence is so bile-inducing that I’m basically choking on it. When every sentence in your book looks like that, readers will want to stick their heads in a blender. Commas do not communicate additional thoughts. Cordon your sentences off with periods or semicolons and use your commas sparingly.

Finally, I want to give you something to shoot for. Ideally, prose is invisible. The less your reader can focus on your writing style/word choice, the better. You captivate your reader not with words, but with worlds. Not with letters, but characters. The more unassuming and wallpaperish you can make your prose (not bad, you understand, just nothing out of the ordinary), the more you can distract the reader with the real content of your tale.

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. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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