Before you put finger to keyboard, ask yourself this question:
who’s the reader? Is it you? Is it someone you love? Or are you
writing for a demographic? Write a character biography of your
generous writer mixes narrative modes, uses gold coins and
cliffhangers, and asks key questions to keep their readers
engaged. But nothing hooks ‘em like characters they care about
a jolly good story.
lexical music (euphony) with a neologistic, lush vocabulary. Use
assonance, consonance (including alliteration), rhyme, and
onomatopoeia in the broadest sense: a word’s connotation is
often shaped by whether a word sounds e.g. sonorous, alveolar,
fricative, nasal, or chiming. But recall the Pope quote: ‘the
sound must seem an echo of the sense.’
phrases and clauses of all kinds to give your prose rhythm: noun
phrases, verbal phrases (gerund, infinitive, and participle),
prepositional phrases, appositive phrases, and absolute phrases;
along with independent and subordinate clauses as you see fit. But
avoid dangling participles.
Together with phrases
and clauses, the way the sentence lengths
vary in a paragraph or passage helps define a text’s rhythm,
pace and drama.
rhythm di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM runs through the
English language like GBS scarpering from a bardolator.
Repetition can provide rhythm or a counterpoint to lexical
richness. But if it’s there by habit or mistake, it likely
A parallelism is a rhetorical
device. Lyrical prose never tried to persuade anyone of
grammar. And then they don’t. The human mind
creates the dynamism of language, not the words. Language
belongs to people, not the lexifuzz. Innovate inside and outside
the rules. Y’dig?
Connotation, imagery, metaphor, and symbolism transform words
into visions. But figurative language has to be done well or not
many subjects and the verb won’t know who’s doing.
subject and verb in a sentence must be in agreement. And to agree,
they generally need to be in shouting distance of each other.
linking verbs (especially ‘to be’) pepper your prose, or
quotidian verb forms like has, does, goes, gets and puts, you’re
probably writing in a rush! Then again, if you nudge your reader
ever closer to the edge of her seat with a hyperbole of dynamic
verbs, she’ll end up on the floor, laughing. Match and mix your
verbs to the music you’re making.
choosing a verb,
avoid clichés and clumsy phrasal constructions.
What’s the point of being in error? Just err, sir! Instead of
being productive, why not produce it? Are you sure you want to
seem? No! Do I appear doubtful? I doubt it! Does he exhibit a
tendency to write limply, or just tend to? Do we implement,
utilize, or use? If a writer can’t find the right verb, should
he clumsily verbize the nearest noun?
Always use the
active voice unless the passive one is what you
verb used imaginatively is as magical as any metaphor. A good
verb cleanses the windows of perception; bad ones smudge the
glass. And the absence of one makes you sound like Donald Trump.
your characters repeatedly ‘gasp’ and ‘grate’ and ‘exclaim’, they’re
probably taking steroids. Let them say their piece rather than
Phrasal verbs soothe but never use two words if one works
sharp verb stood next to a dressy adverb looks gauche; a
photogenic noun doesn’t need an adjective drawn over it, like a
moustache on the Mona Lisa. Make your adverbs and
powerful not purple.
playful when choosing nouns. Let them render an image precisely,
evoke pertinent feelings and sensations, and be apt to their
context. They may tell readers exactly where they are. They can
also carry big ideas.
nouns bring descriptions vividly to life.
They animate scenes and people by folding the psychological into
well-situated adjective can influence character, landscape, and
mood. Just don’t trip up your pacey prose by misplacing them.
flamboyance of adjectives in flight is fabulous if they paint
the sky a firestorm pink. But if they turn the heavens a turgid
purple, shoot ‘em!
adverbs. They pretend to modify the verb, but
don’t. They make-believe they add emphasis, but subtract it.
Others try to spruce up tired verbs when a more vivacious verb
is what’s needed.
There are more ways to describe something than
sentence or paragraph looks clear enough, think of how to make
it clearer, but don’t turn a melodious fugue into a cheap ditty.
your sentence sounds like a cheap ditty, check for
prepositions. Sometimes a less cluttered sentences sounds
Prepositional stranding is another example of how some words are
like soul twins: nothing makes sense when they drift too far
preposition is just the kind of word I like to end a sentence
with. Pedants who avoid the practice write unwieldy sentences.
Starting a sentences with a
conjunction troubles only the
lexifuzz, whereas a sentence with too many contradictory
conjunctions is like trying to steer a lop-sided go-cart down a
steep windy road.
paragraph of evocative paratactic sentences can be just as
coherent as one that marches resolutely towards a hypotactic
conclusion. But if it isn’t topically (i.e. topic sentence) and
structurally (e.g. parallelism) coherent, you’ll need the
creativity and cadence of Joyce to pull it together.
new paragraph can feel like a shift onto the other foot, a step into
a new city, or any one of a thousand kinds of change in-between.
Narrative inhabits every level of discourse, every rhetorical
mode. It occupies every living sentence; every paragraph; every
thrusting filament in Freytag’s five act dramatic arc: the
exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action,
the dénouement. Narrative invigorates every catchy description
conversation. Its absence slows down the show.
Sentences can be simple, compound, or complex. Long sentences
should be, as Mark Twain put it, “a torch-light procession.”
Used well, sentence fragments inject humour, timbre and pathos
into a text.
sentence begins with ‘it is’ or ‘there are’, it’s probably a
tone prose is like two tone shoes: hip, playful, and interesting.
mood to the material and your voice to the audience,
but make sure the voice is yours. A clear, honest voice – that’s
the thing! Listen carefully, though, and you’ll hear voices
genre writing alternates between proactive scenes, where the
character tries but fails to achieve a goal – and often makes a
bigger mess in the process, and reactive scenes, where the
character struggles with a dilemma and then decides what to do
next. Play with this.
Where’s your thesaurus? Where’s the dictionary? Both are
essential writer’s essential tools, along with a commitment to
Revise by lexical category: nouns, then verbs,
and so on, but bear
in mind that the most important editorial tool is not the
thesaurus or the blue pencil, but your ability to reorder words
and recast sentences.