July 2020: Perfecting Your Prose


By Ekta R. Garg

If we look up the meaning of the word perfect, we’ll find common definitions. Dictionary.com says it means “to make flawless.” Wordhippo.com says when something is perfect, it’s “without fault or mistake.” Merriam-Webster says the word perfect means “being entirely without defect.”

Some of the most famous authors and creators have come to dislike or even disown their own work, however. They definitely didn’t think their famous creations were “perfect.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started feeling jealous that people recognized the name Sherlock Holmes more than they recognized the writer and killed off the famous detective before bringing him back.

Leo Tolstoy disowned War and Peace and Anna Karenina later in life after he became religious, saying his books went against his new beliefs.

Peter Benchley, author of the 1974 novel Jaws, publicly expressed his regret for writing the book after the movie came out and became a shark conservationist to convince people that sharks don’t hold grudges.

A.A. Milne appreciated the love he got for Winnie the Pooh, but he also resented how the adventures of the creatures in the Hundred-Acre Wood completely eclipsed all his other work.

If famous authors feel like their stories and novels had problems, where does that leave new writers? Does that mean we’re hopeless? Should we quit writing?

No. Famous, well-known writers, like us, are human. Like us, they look back and view their stories—even the ones the entire world knows—with skepticism. They think their work wasn’t really that perfect after all.

So what does it mean, then, to perfect our prose?

Maybe we need to change the definition of perfection or being perfect. The words “perfection” and “perfect” come from the base word “perficio,” which means “to finish”; “to bring to an end.” Instead of saying we’re trying to make a story without blemish or flaw, we should say striving for perfection in our prose means we’re trying to make a piece complete. We’re trying to finish it so nothing else can be added to it.

Not only are we revising the idea of perfection. This means we have to revise the story itself. We have to drill into the mechanics of our stories until every element is as polished as we can make it.

Revisions can be time-consuming and make us feel like we’re baring our souls, because we’re forcing ourselves to dig deeper into the story than when we first wrote it. They’re also essential to the writing process. The best writing comes from rewriting.

No writer in the history of the universe has ever written a perfect first draft. Many of them probably didn’t get it completely right on the third or fourth draft either. Every big-name author starts out the same way: with a blank page and an idea. Every successful writer works days and weeks on their stories. They gain success over time, yes, and they have legions of fans and movies and even theme parks made out of their work. But no one attains “perfection” or “completion” by dashing off a whole bunch of words and calling it a day.

So, revision is important. It’s also necessary. And here’s how you can tackle it, one step at a time.

First, understand that all of your revisions aren’t going to happen within a single draft. A story, when told right, when written to completion, to perfection, takes over us. It makes us feel like we’re entering a world or an experience bigger than we are. It takes time and several rounds to build something that expansive and interactive.

The revision process starts when you’re done writing, because the first thing you do when you type those last words is put the story or novel aside. If you’re writing a short piece—anything between flash fiction to about the 2500-word mark—leave the story alone for about a week. The longer the piece, the more you should leave it alone after the first draft. If you’ve just finished a novel, leave it alone for at least a month.

Giving yourself time and distance will also give you clarity and objectivity. When we’re writing, it can be like the first days of a new romantic relationship. Your judgment is clouded to the story’s flaws because you can’t stop thinking about all the things you love about it. Your excitement makes you read through typos or plot holes, and you’re so excited about what you have to present to the world that you won’t even bat an eye that one of your supporting characters changes names or maybe even genders halfway through the story.

So, give yourself some distance. Then come back, but this time come back as a reader and a critic. Be ready to make some notes on your story. Be ready not to touch the writing until you’re done reading.

Here are some things to look for that first time.

Plot

The plot of a piece has to do with the what, the nuts and bolts, of your manuscript. “The queen died, and then the king died.”

The plot will deal with things like the timeline of events. See if how you ordered the events of your tale make sense, both in how you wrote them and also in what’s best for the manuscript. Readers have to be able to follow the timeline from one event to the next without feeling lost.

When considering plot, you also have to think about whether all the events you included are necessary. Every major event should be like a main Jenga piece—pull one out, and the entire tower comes crashing down. Every minor event should be like those side pieces that make the tower wobble.

If you’re iffy on an event, make notes on what would happen if you take that event out. How would the plot change? Would the reactions of the characters change? Would the characters themselves change?

If you honestly feel like you have all of the events in place, that’s great! It’s time to take another break. This one can be shorter than the first—a couple of days for a short story, maybe two weeks for a novel—and then come back for the next round.

Story

The story is the emotional component. “The queen died and then the king died…of a broken heart.”

When you re-read your piece for story, ask whether the emotions are as strong as they can possibly be in every section. Emotion is as much about what’s going on below the surface as it is above it.

If our characters are fighting, can you make them say things that hurt more deeply? Can they cross a line? Can they mention that one thing they agreed never to mention?

If you’re worried that this might escalate the story to a place you didn’t plan, that’s okay. This means there’s more conflict in the story, and the more conflict you have, the more tension you’ll have. The more of both you’ll have, the more invested your readers will be.

Conflict is the active clash between two opposing forces. Think of a parent and their teenager. The teen wants to extend her curfew. The parent says no. The teen screams at the parent; the parent screams back. That’s conflict. It’s active, and it’s loud.

Tension is the emotional or mental strain between two opposing forces with both forces trying to suppress that strain. When the teen comes home at their regular curfew time and glares at the parent and the parent tries to keep a neutral expression but is gripping a glass of wine, that’s tension. When the teen is stomping up the stairs and the parent sits and buries their head in their hands, that’s tension. It’s in the air and under our skin, but it’s not expressed.

Both conflict and tension mean the presence of strong emotions or why our story is taking place.

But conflict doesn’t have to be between the two main opposing forces in a story. It can also be between one of the main forces and something smaller. Let’s say two partners have a fight first thing in the morning before leaving for work. Normally one of them drives and the other takes the train, and normally they’re out the door at the same time. But this morning they’re not, because one of them has hurt the other deeply.

The partner who drives screams the last few words and leaves the house with a slam of the door. The partner who takes the train rushes to the train stop—only to watch as their regular train is just leaving. Now they’re going to be late for work, which means they’re going to be late for that meeting.

Missing the train has nothing to do with two people fighting. On this morning, though, the partner who missed the train feels like she can’t do anything right anymore. She can’t even get to work on time. If she could have attended the meeting, she could have shown her boss her initiative and been that much closer to a promotion. Now she’ll have to wait for the next train, like how she’ll have to wait for the next promotion. Like she has to wait for her partner to realize they’re wrong and apologize.

This also dials up the tension. Our commuter will be thinking about that fight all day, and if anything goes wrong at work she’s going to blame it on the fight too. By the time she gets home, she’s going to be a tightly-coiled spring. The slightest thing will set her off.

You should have emotion on every single page if you’re writing a novel. If you’re writing a short story, you should have emotion every couple of paragraphs. If you’re writing an exceptionally short piece, like flash fiction, there should be so much emotion in every single line that readers are fidgeting from it.

Guess what? It’s time to take a break again. Another day or so for the shorter works and another week for the novel. Because next you’ll jump into one of the most important components of your stories: your characters.

Characters

Sometimes you have to look at the characters you’ve written and ask yourself with the most objectivity, is this person necessary? Is this the only person who could have gone on this quest or investigated that murder? Is this the only person who could have attacked my protagonist?

If you’ve taken a couple of breaks with your manuscript and something still doesn’t sit quite right about it with you, ask if your protagonist or antagonist or your secondary characters are necessary. Are they the right people to take on the tasks you’ve set them? Could it possibly be someone else? Maybe someone of a different age or gender or a different profession? Sometimes even just changing from first person point of view to third person point of view is enough.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to ask your characters what they want and whether that’s all there is or whether they have more to offer. And if you make the tough decision to cut a character, don’t dwell on it. Just start pulling their scenes out. You might lose a character, but you shouldn’t lose hope.

And you shouldn’t lose your drive to revise. How about another break? Another couple of days or so for your short story and a week or so for the novel. Then jump in and start taking a closer look at the conversations your characters are having.

Dialogue

Real-life conversations can be dull. We share a lot of boring, unnecessary information with one another. But when it comes to our writing, the dialogue shouldn’t be boring. It shouldn’t include every single “um” or “well,” and it also shouldn’t go overboard to explain stuff. The last time you were talking to your partner about picking up a child, did you say, “Well, as you know, since our child goes to gymnastics three days a week from four to five, it’s important for someone to be there no later than 5:00 to get her.” No, you didn’t.

A good rule of thumb is to read the dialogue out loud. See how it sounds. One of the best things about dialogue is the grammar doesn’t have to be perfect. Also, think about conversations you’ve had with people in your own life, about how much you spell out for them, and how much you don’t express, either because you don’t have to or because you don’t want to.

Instead of, “Well, as you know, since our child goes to gymnastics three days a week from four to five, it’s important for someone to be there no later than 5:00 to get her,” how about this:

Karen cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder. “Are you getting Jessica from gymnastics?”

Tom paused. “What do you mean?”

“Jessica? Gymnastics?”

“You didn’t tell me I had to get her. What time is she done?”

Karen sighed. “Five. The same as every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

“You don’t have to talk to me like that.”

Karen turned the water off and stood with her hands draped over the edge of the sink. “Like what?”

“Like I’m incompetent. I’m not a complete moron, Karen, no matter what you think.”

“I don’t…forget it, I’ll figure it out.”

How many times have you met someone new at a dinner party and shared your deepest secrets within the first 10 minutes? Almost never. So there are ways to go about those kinds of conversations too. Here’s an example:

“Hi, I’m Karen.”

Tom extended a hand. “Tom. Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

They both paused, taking a moment to survey the other people at the benefit.

“So, Karen, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a graphic designer. Well, I mean, I was. I’m kind of…freelance now.”

Tom wondered about the pause. He saw how she kept her eyes trained on the crowd milling around them.

“That’s great,” he said. “It must be nice to work for yourself.”

This time her smile was genuine, and he knew he’d been right not to push the issue. Maybe she’d been fired and was embarrassed about it. He wasn’t going to make a perfect stranger feel worse about something that almost anyone could have gone through.

Another thing to ask is whether a conversation is actually necessary. Do these characters have to be talking to one another in this moment about this topic? If you take out that conversation, does it change the story? If the answer is no, you might want to consider condensing the information to a short descriptive paragraph or cutting it altogether.

Also, what are the emotions in the conversation? If you can honestly say there are none, that’s probably a good indication that either the dialogue needs to go or the story needs to change. No one wants to read the equivalent of a grocery shopping list. Readers come to stories for strong emotions and unexpected experiences. Your dialogue can give them both.

Once you’ve listened to your characters talking, it’s time to pull back a little and look at the next step of revisions. We started out discussing how to perfect our prose. After another break from your story, let’s get into that.

Prose

The word “prose” can mean a lot of things, like the transitions between scenes. If you’re going to use some sort of a break like asterisks or a new chapter, that’s self-explanatory, but if you’re going to move to a new time of day or the year then you have to write your way into that. Don’t just say:

Tom was in his office, fuming that Karen got the promotion. In his new job, he made it clear that he wanted a clear path to the top of the company.

It might be better to go this way:

Tom sat in his office, fuming about Karen getting the promotion.

I’ll show them, he thought. Why stick around here and give them the best of me when I can go where I’m appreciated?

A month later he walked into a new building with one agenda on his mind: to make it to the top without any stops along the way.

With that internal dialogue, we’ve given the reader a chance to follow Tom from one job to the next.

Looking at your prose also means considering mechanics, like typos and grammar. If you think you’re strong in these areas, you can keep an eye out for them during all the other times you read through your manuscript. Just remember you won’t catch everything on a single pass or even two.

Another thing to consider in your prose is the words themselves. Are your descriptions fresh? Can you punch them up? Here’s an example.

Karen’s hair was as straight as a board.

This cliché has been used time and time again. What if we try to improve it?

Karen’s hair was as straight as a plumb line.

Anyone who has used a plumb line knows it has to hang completely straight. But not everyone may know what a plumb line is. Can we do better?

Karen’s hair was as straight as a yardstick.

This last option creates a much more concrete image. Also, almost everyone knows what a yardstick is. You don’t have to waste precious story real estate to explain it.

Find ways to make your prose stand out. A good thesaurus is handy for this. That doesn’t mean you replace every single ordinary word with unusual ones. For a story that’s longer than 2500 words, look for spots every three to five paragraphs to use an unusual word or comparison or description. For a novel, do this once on every page. It’s just enough to keep a reader intrigued but not so much that they think you’re forcing them to read something fancy for the sake of fancy.

If you’re writing really short fiction, shorter than 2500 words, then you have to take special care to weigh each and every single word and make sure it’s the right one. That means no more than a couple of unusual descriptors or synonyms, because you’re going to want to steer your writing very gently toward and then away from those spots.

If you think your piece is the best you can make it, this is when you really get to take a break—because it’s time to find a beta reader.

Beta readers

Beta readers haven’t spent months or even years working on this story. They’re going to be more objective with your work and tell you how, from their viewpoint, the story looks.

When you do find those readers, make sure, first, that you’re clear with them on what you want. Do you want them to take a deep-dive look at your characters? Would you prefer they examine the plot? Should they keep an eye out for sparkling description?

Also, remember: your writing friends are just as invested in your success as you are. Any feedback they give will be instructive ad helpful, even if they tell you they don’t like a particular character or plot point.

All of this might sound exhausting, and it is. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. Revising your work gives you the opportunity to step back and take a deeper look at what you’re trying to accomplish. It enables you to get to know your story and characters better. You get past the honeymoon stage and form a deep bond, a lifelong relationship, with that story. That bond only happens with time and care, and when you revise that’s exactly what you’re giving your piece.

Because it’s only with that time and care and that bonding and those revisions that you can complete your story. It’s only then that you’ll have perfected your prose.

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Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell

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