Tag Archives: prose

Cut Deadwood: Eliminating The Innocuous “It Was”

ideadwood-685380-mBack in elementary school, I had various teachers who assigned “essays” by giving a required topic and length. Later in college, I had professors who made similar assignments. Not surprisingly, a number of students in both instances looked for ways to pad their work in order to meet the length requirement.

Their goal, of course, was not to entertain the teacher or professor. They simply wanted to complete the assignment.

Most writers who aspire to sell their work aren’t length conscious, but I suspect few of us learned ways to keep our writing lean and focused.

Eliminating the innocuous “it was” falls under the category of tightening prose and is particularly important in controlling the pace of a piece of writing.

“It was” is not grammatically incorrect (and thus the “innocuous” label)—it’s just not needed in most instances. In all fairness, neither is he was, she was, or they were. These subject/verb combinations almost always follow a sentence that introduces the it or the he, the she, or the they. In essence, then, the pronoun/be verb combinations are redundant.

Examples may clarify the point:

    * He pulled out a knife. It was an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.
    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen heading for the front desk. He was taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins walked up to the front door and knocked. They were each carrying a birthday present for their classmate.
    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher. She was busy sorting papers at her desk and continued to work as they talked.

In most instances, a sentence beginning with a pronoun and a verb of being is describing or renaming the noun introduced in the previous sentence. So in the examples above, it renames knife, he renames gentleman, they renames twins, and she renames Mrs. Watson. Because of this close connection, however, the extra wordage is not needed.

In many cases, the sentence introduced by the pronoun/verb of being can be incorporated with the previous sentence. The simplest method is to replace the subject/verb with a comma:

    * He pulled out a knife, an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.

Sometimes the descriptive material can be incorporated in the previous sentence as parenthetical material:

    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen—taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack—heading for the front desk.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins, each carrying a birthday present for their classmate, walked up to the front door and knocked.

Sometimes the material can be restructured in a more succinct way in an independent clause.

    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher, who busily sorted papers at her desk while they talked.

Whichever method an author chooses or the context demands, eliminating the innocuous pronoun/verb of being combination trims deadwood from prose and contributes to a more lively pace.

One caution. The goal of good writing is not to create the fastest pace possible. At the same time, unnecessary words should not pad our prose.



Filed under Prose, Sentence structure


PoetryCadence is the variation in a person’s tone, the rhythm created by the rise and fall of his voice. Poetry relies on cadence to create rhythm patters, but novelists can employ the device as well.

Poets, of course, are meticulous about their word choices so that each not only carries the meaning they desire, but also the proper order of accented and unaccented syllables.

Novelists, not concerned with a regular rhythmic pattern, create cadence in several different ways. First is through the length of sentences.

Long, luxurious sentences and paragraphs slow the tempo of a passage. Conversely, short sentences quicken the pace and frequently produce a tense, staccato effect.

The best passages employ both strategies to effect a paragraph with rhythm and balance. (“How To Tell,” Michael Orlofsky, Writer’s Digest, October 2002)

A second rhythmic device involves conjunctions—either their addition or their omission. The first, called polysyndeton, repeats a conjunction between each of the words or phrases in a series. The latter, asyndeton, omits the conjunction, even before the final element. Here are example of each:

Polysyndeton: An avalanche of rock and dirt cascaded beside him and over him and under him.

Asyndeton: His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, a couple cauliflower clumps.

A third way to create cadence in prose is to purposefully use repetition. For instance, a proposition can be used over and over or a key word in one sentence can be repeated in the opening of the next sentence.

The first use creates a staccato rhythm which can be enhanced if short phrases are written as sentences.

    Repetition of a preposition in a sentence: Away from Laguna Beach, from Eddie, from the tatters of his career.
    Repetition of a preposition in consecutive sentences: Away from Laguna Beach. From Eddie. From the tatters of his career.

The Color Of Grief Isn't Blue cover

    Repetition of a key word from one sentence at the beginning of another: “But my sister, Ainsley, puts her key in the lock five mornings a week. She straightens the over-sized posters that shift every time a train goes by on the tracks across the road from the strip mall that houses the headquarters. Posters of a beautiful little girl with strawberries on her sundress and a makeshift wreath of flowers in her hair.” (From The Color Of Sorrow Isn’t Blue by Sharon Souza).

Parallel construction is another method to create rhythm. The parallelism can be within a sentence or within a paragraph, but the idea is that multiplies—phrases, clauses, or sentences—have the same basic structure.

Here’s an example of phrases each consisting of a verb each followed by a prepositional phrase:

    He slid behind the wheel of his Porsche, backed from the driveway, and accelerated onto the road heading south.

Anaphora, or “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses” (Oxford American Dictionary), is another way novelists create cadence in their prose. The following excerpt from Caught by Harlan Coben illustrates this technique:

And that was when Marcia started to feel a small rock form in her chest. There were no clothes in the hamper.

The rock in her chest grew when Marcia checked Haley’s toothbrush, then the sink and shower.

All bone-dry.

The rock grew when she called out to Ted, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. It grew when they drove to captain’s practice and found out that Haley had never showed. It grew when she called Haley’s friends while Ted sent out an e-mail blast—and no one knew where Haley was. It grew when they called the local police, who, despite Marcia’s and Ted’s protestations, believed that Haley was a runaway, a kid blowing off some steam. It grew when forty-eight hours later, the FBI was brought in. It grew when there was still no sign of Haley after a week. (As quoted by Margie Lawson, emphases mine)

Cadence is not a device that readers will necessarily notice unless they stop and think about the prose—not a plus if they are to remain immersed in the story world and wrapped up with the character’s problems. However, the absence of cadence can work against readers, causing them to stumble and retreat to regain the flow.

Writers want readers moving forward, fully engaged with the story. Proper cadence can help to accomplish this goal.


Filed under Prose, Tone, Writing Style

Nine Nonfiction No-nos

45559_robert82_far_from_everywhereI have to admit upfront—I only picked the number nine because I like alliteration. I’m not a hundred percent sure I can provide nine writerly things to avoid in nonfiction, but here’s my valiant (I hope) attempt.

1. Confusion. People read nonfiction primarily to learn something, to be informed, to increase their understanding. Confusion prevents any of that from happening.

2. Sloppy thinking. Writers of nonfiction need to create a clear line of thinking that readers can follow. Skipping steps or making unfounded leaps to an unearned conclusion will make readers skeptical—either about the writer’s ability or the subject’s accuracy.

3. Disorganization. Skipping from one point to another without some logical order waters down whatever it is an author is trying to say.

4. Outdated or incorrect statistics. Supportive data is not supportive if it is wrong or no longer relevant. When writing nonfiction, an author must do the research and check it twice to be sure it is up to date.

5. Unclear examples. If an author uses an example to illustrate a point, it should do so in an unambiguous way. Questionable examples can undermine the very point the writer is trying to make.

6. Yawn-inducing content. Even in blog posts, writers must aim to write about interesting subjects in an interesting way.

7. Unimaginative prose. No less than fiction, nonfiction needs to use strong verbs and nouns. The author should vary the sentence structure. The writing itself should be high quality—beautiful or compelling, entertaining or riveting.

8. Deceptive or untrue. Readers looking for an expert’s opinion or knowledgeable advice need to trust an author. Consequently no writer should knowingly fabricate information in order to make his argument look stronger. Neither should he use inflammatory vocabulary that will purposefully lead readers to an incorrect conclusion. Sadly, political campaigns all too often resort to this kind of writing—which may be one reason people sigh with relief when an election is over.

9. Plagiarism. Other writers can inspire. A book or article can prompt ideas. But no author should take another’s work and pass it off verbatim as if it is his own.

Nine no-nos weren’t as hard to identify as I expected. If fact, I can think of one or two others, but I’ll save them for another day and give you a turn to add ones you think belong on the list. We can rename the collection Ten Turn-offs or Eleven Errors or something. 😀

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Filed under Nonfiction, Writing Rules

Oil And Vinegar, Not Oil And Water

Oil and water don’t mix no matter how much a person might try. On the other hand, oil and vinegar have properties that allow them to blend temporarily. When shaken together, along with all the appropriate spices, they can create a delicious dressing, a delight for the palate.

Poetry and fiction work the same way. Yes, they are separate entities and mostly stay in their own literary niches, but there are times and ways that the two can come together to enhance a story. Since April is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to discuss ways in which poetry can make fiction better.

One obvious instance occurs when a novelist includes poems or songs in his work. J. R. R. Tolkien utilized numerous songs in Lord of the Rings — from those Tom Bombadil sang to the ones Bilbo wrote as part of his story and those the elves sang on most occasions.

Besides incorporating poems as a whole into fiction, an author can utilize poetry’s various parts to spice up his prose.

Poetry, as you may know, is constructed using a number of sound devices and/or a number of imagery devices. It is these that can give prose a boost, taking it beyond the mundane and making it fun, insightful, or even beautiful.

Sound Devices

Many people think of rhyme when they think of poetry. This is certainly one of the sound devices poets may use, but it is not the only one. Others include alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, even repetition.

Rhythm is probably the most popular device used by novelists. When poets utilize rhythm they are trying to create a pattern using stressed and unstressed syllables, such as you hear in nursery rhymes or children’s songs:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Novelists who pay attention to rhythm, however, utilize variety and flow more than patterns. Not only should a line say what the novelists wants it to say, but it should sound the way she wants it to sound.

High energy action scenes use shorter sentences. Fragments even. Leisurely scenes may consist of longer sentences and paragraphs filled with description or reflection, utilizing parenthetical material, perhaps — whether created by using em dashes, parentheses or even a colon. The key is, the rhythm of the sentence fits the content and the context.

When appropriate, an author may incorporate alliteration — the repetition of the same sounds at the beginning of words:

They muscled the boat to another bend, but as they navigated the curve the vessel rammed to a stop with a heavy clunk.

Consonance is similar but limited to the repetition of consonant sounds and not limited to the beginning of a word.

You crash over the trees,
You crack the live branch:
the branch is white,
the green crushed,
each leaf is rent like split wood.

In the same way, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

Onomatopoeia — the formation of a word from the sound associated with it — is another common device. In the earlier line above, the word clunk is an example of onomatopoeia.

None of these devices occurs with as much frequency in fiction as in poetry, and when an author does employ them it should be with purpose. The sounds should strengthen the picture that the meaning of the words has already created.


Creating these word pictures can be more effective with the help of poetry’s devices: similes, metaphors, personification, symbols, hyperbole, and so on.

Similes and metaphors create comparisons between two usually unrelated objects for the sake of amplifying a particular trait of the item being described. Similes do so in a more obvious way by announcing the comparison with a preposition — like or as.

“His hair like moldy hay,” part of a line from the poem “The Highwayman,” makes an effective, and announced, comparison. On the other hand, “The serpentine road crawled to the top of the rise” doesn’t declare, the road was like a snake, but instead shows it. Both create vivid word pictures.

Personification gives human or organic properties to inanimate objects. Even phrases like “the heart of the tale” utilize personification.

Symbols stand for and represent something else. In A Christmas Carol the chains Marley’s ghost carried around represented his sins from his greedy life.

Hyperbole is purposeful exaggeration for effect. Example: The swarm of crows blackened the sky.

When using these imagery devices, a novelist should stretch to create ones that fit his characters and setting rather than relying on common ones already in existence. Many of these have become cliches.

In summary, good prose — lyrical prose — will utilize some of the same devices that poetry does. One way to become more familiar with these devices is to read poetry. Another is to write it.

What devices do you purposefully use in your prose? Have you done so because you write poetry or have you learned to do so because of what you read?

If you’d like to learn more about poetry, Owl Editing has an interesting page on understanding poetry — organized a little differently and in more depth than what I’ve presented in brief here.

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Filed under Word Use, Writing Style

Beautiful And Bad

We’ve all seen them on TV — gorgeous women who lure the hero by their incomparable good looks, but in the end they are bad, bad, bad. Some stories aren’t so different from those characters.

In a recent contest I entered, the submission guidelines included this line: “Some writers can weave a beautiful thread, but tell a really bad story at the same time.”

That caught my attention. So often a writer believes that spinning beautiful prose is all it takes to write a best-seller. I don’t believe that’s true in fiction or non-fiction.

In the latter, we can replace “story” with “content” and the statement above is just as true — a beautiful thread can be a part of really bad content. I’ve seen it before in blog posts. One beautiful sentence after another, and suddenly my eyes are glazed over because I have no idea where the writer is going and I’ve forgotten where she came from. Either that or she’s made her point over and over using one inspiring metaphor, followed by a clever simile, illustrated by a picturesque analogy, the redundancy leaving at least this one bored reader skimming the rest of the post.

How can a writer avoid wasting beautiful prose on a bad story? To answer this question, I think we must first look at what constitutes a bad story.

A host of story elements gone wrong can result in bad stories, but my Big Three are lack of originality, little or no direction, and an ending that does not deliver what the beginning promised.

Originality. Stories aren’t new, but they can be told from a perspective that hasn’t been done and re-done. For example, the story of King Arthur has been told in story, film, movies, TV programs over and over again, to the point that I tend to recoil when I hear a story uses elements of that myth.

And yet, when the TV program Merlin came on, it quickly became one of my favorites. Why? Because I’d never seen this slice of the Arthur story before — his life as a young prince as told through the eyes of the young wizard who would one day be the key figure in Arthur’s kingdom.

Direction. In fiction the main character sets the direction of the story. Problems occur when a writer has so many point of view characters that a reader has a hard time identifying the main direction. He doesn’t connect with one particular character and therefore does not follow the story in the hopes that the hero will find success.

“Finding success” also is dependent upon direction. The main character must want something and must take action to accomplish whatever it is he or she wishes to achieve. This achievement, however, may be something subtle, such as character change. Nevertheless, readers should know without question when the character achieves or fails, whether he’s been successful in his quest or not.

Rocky Balboa, for example, lost his first title bout against Apollo Creed, but he forced the fight to go the distance — one of his goals. What’s more, through the events leading up to the fight, Rocky changed. Even though the boxing judges’ decision went against him, we all knew Rocky was a winner.

The Ending. Recently I read a story that promised much. The character was interesting and the premise original. Tension mounted. Suspense showed up. But in the end, what we thought was true turned out not to be so, and the story ended like a balloon with a slow leak.

Endings need to be strong and satisfying. They need to cap off a steady build up. In fact, all that has come before should be leading to the climactic ending.

With that kind of appropriate build-up, an ending will be satisfying if it answers the story question — can the character overcome? However, that “overcome” issue isn’t so much about overcoming an adversary as it is overcoming his own weakness.

Endings need to be strong for their own sake but also for the sake of the next book. Unless a reader finishes with a sense of satisfaction, it’s unlikely she will care to read the next novel the author puts out.

In summary, authors certainly should write beautiful prose. However, all that beauty should be poured into making the story great. Attention to style without attention to substance may earn praise from those looking for art in story. But the truth is, most readers are looking for story in story. Authors would be wise to give the best story they can — without neglecting beautiful prose that can serve as the wrapping.


Filed under Story

Sweating The Small Stuff – It’s All In The Details

Recently an author friend of mine passed along some of the editorial feedback about a manuscript which required rewrites. In a number of instances, the changes weren’t what a writer new to the publishing world would expect.

Yes, there were a few of the big issues — character motivation, for example — but a good number of the suggestions had to do with the small stuff, things like consistency in a character’s voice, additional details in describing the setting, and minor characters that needed to come alive.

Initially I thought it might be a helpful tip here to give a list of the details this one writing professional told this one writer to improve this one manuscript. But I think you can see the problem with that — what is true for one story and writer isn’t going to be true for all.

I might have great depth in my minor characters, for example, but overlook the missing details that create plot inconsistencies.

The key, then, isn’t to look at a list that some other author has received, but to create a list for ourselves. We need to pay attention to the small stuff in our own work in progress.

Thinking in details may be hard initially. For example, I as the author may know that a minor character will appear in the book this one time but not again, therefore I’m not particularly invested in fleshing him out. What that does, however, is make the character nothing but a prop, a two-dimensional piece of furniture that the author drops in at that one spot for convenience.

One of the most egregious examples of this “character as prop” effect was in a novel I read some time ago. The book was part historical love story and part mystery/adventure. At one point an older woman who was acting as chaperon was on board a small boat with the two main characters. But apparently after the chaperon said her lines, the author forgot about her because the two main characters went on to share a dark secret that no one else was to know. And no, they weren’t whispering, the minor character hadn’t fallen asleep or overboard and she wasn’t hard of hearing. The author simply did not account for her presence.

A small oversight like that can ruin the “fictive dream” for the reader. Instead of being lost in the tension and the surprise, the reader is thinking, Wait a minute, if this is such a great secret, why are they telling it in front of this minor character?

Details of a story setting are no less important. Readers need to be anchored in place and need to be able to picture where everyone is so the action they are reading makes sense. One story I read some time ago had the character under attack and running for his life. Imagine my surprise when he decided to hide in a barn I didn’t know existed until that moment.

Along with specifics in character and setting, an author needs to pay attention to the specifics of his prose. Word choice can alter mood, a more formal phrase can create inconsistency in tone, repetition and redundancy can slow the pace, too many fragments can make the prose stilted. A writer needs to look at such details.

By taking the time to look at the particulars on every level, a writer will discover two things: making up stories actually is work, and taking time to look at the small stuff pays off. You see, we call stories that keep readers ensnared by a special name: best-sellers. 😉


Filed under Revision