Please note before you read this:
The author of this (me) has already been accused of self-interest, absolute arrogance, sheer stupidity, and "just being plain dumb wrong" since he wrote this. This guide does not claim to be all-knowing, and actually isn't. However, hopefully it'll help inspire some of you out there to write.
Prose for Beginners: Part One
Learning to write prose is a challenge, to say the least. Balancing style, setting, characters, and plot for even a page is a feat that takes years to learn, a lifetime to master. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of prose is this: there are no rules. In poetry, you often have limited space – and once you’ve used up that space, you can go back and improve your work as you please. Prose offers you endless space, which means you have to force yourself to revise.
Explaining all of writing prose in just one tutorial would be impossible. What follows, however, is a quick list of helpful advice you might want to adapt to improve your writing style. They are not set in stone, but they are generic enough to hopefully help you out in most situations.
In order to demonstrate these tips, I will be using a sample bit of writing, just long enough to suit our needs. Read this sentence, and tell me what you think.
I was making the kitchen clean, trying to finish before Mom (the famous Miss Smith) came home, and then it happened.
One simple sentence. Well-written? Hardly. It can be improved in a number of ways, depending on what you are aiming for.
Let’s start with the beginning: “I was making the kitchen clean.” It features a subject and a verb, right? So it’s perfect, according to basic laws of grammar. If only it was that easy: the opening may not be incorrect mechanics-wise, but it’s very bulky.
Rule One: Don’t Waste Words
If you can make what you’re writing slimmer, try and do it. It may make your writing look impressive if it’s long, but don’t just waste space. It’s inefficient, and people don’t like reading it. How about this, for a start: “I was cleaning the kitchen.”
It’s easier to read, and it doesn’t muck around with words. Just what you should always attempt.
Of course, this isn’t an excuse not to use words: some things can’t be written shortly without diminishing the impact of the piece. (Most famously, the novel Ulysses
—considered by many to be the greatest work of the 20th century—has a chapter which is written entirely without punctuation, up until the very end. You can gawk at it here
.) If you need to write it long, then do it—but otherwise, concise is better.
Of course, that opening is still far from perfect. “I was cleaning the kitchen”—it’s so bland. If your whole story’s going to be like that, you might want to consider revising things a bit. Make it interesting. Use the English language a bit.
Rule Two: Be As Accurate As Possible
How is your character cleaning the kitchen? Is he doing it lazily? Is he meticulous about it? If so, tell the reader: “I was making the kitchen spotless
…” In this case, you would be totally justified in expanding your sentence a bit: “I was in the process of
making the kitchen spotless…” Here, we see the character going over the kitchen in detail, making it as clean as can be. Partway through, though… Detail makes a story what it is.
It is possible to go overboard with this. I’ve read many stories that attempt something like the following: “I was engaged in the burdensome task of making my cozily snug kitchen as puritanically spotless as could be when…” At first, some may think this piece more descriptive, and it is—but at what price? Wasting a lot of space with descriptors is never a good thing.
Rule Three: Don’t Waste Words (again)
The trick with writing is not describing. It’s describing well. Any one of us can describe a person well if we use a hundred pages—but how many of us can do the same in a sentence?
Learning exactly how to use words is a must, though it is difficult. For example: calling somebody attractive. “Cute” describes a more innocent type of beauty than “hot” or “sexy.” It’s not as powerful as calling somebody “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” or “stunning.” “Pretty” is a bit more versatile: it’s a milder adjective, and a useful adverb. Calling somebody “pretty hot” places them neatly within the hot spectrum. “Stunningly gorgeous,” on the other hand, may be going a bit too far.
Once again, don’t take this as a warning against description. Writing, as I’ve said, is all about description. The trick is not overdoing it: otherwise, you’ll sound boring, or—worse—cheap.
Another thing to remember when working on this opening is this: why bother telling more, anyway? Is the kitchen important in your story? If not, you’d be better off keeping it short.
Rule Four: Don’t Say More Than You Have To
Another problem that comes up with new writers is that they don’t know what to spend their time on. I read a story featuring a kid who went on a holiday. Fully half the story involved what the kid was eating right before he went on said holiday. Unless the author was writing for a sandwich-fanatic magazine, this probably wasn’t that good an idea.
“I was cleaning the kitchen” is generic, yes. But unless you can add something that actually makes your story better, you might be well-off just keeping it short and going on to the important part of your writing.
Of course, some people have the exact opposite problem. They take the “don’t say much” rule too far, and miss the best opportunities that come their way.
Rule Five: Take Your Time With What Matters
If you have something important to say, take your time and say it. My favorite example of this is from SomethingAwful.com, about a kid who wrote a three-page-long story about his birthday party. In the last sentence, he revealed that his father later got cancer and died. This, suffice it to say, is not good space-management.
Say an important part of the story you’re writing is about the importance of, I dunno, the complexities of a family. Rather than diminishing
the length of your opening, you might want to make it longer. So, after some tinkering, we end up with this:
“It happened when I was cleaning the kitchen, trying to get things ready for the arrival of Mom (the famous Miss Smith). I spun throughout the room, sweeping up trash and work alike in a tornado of activity. Mom was critical of all my work, and I was sloppy, so I had to work hard.”
What’s wrong with this piece? Well, beyond the fact that it’s severely melodramatic. The first thing that would catch my attention is this bit: Mom (the famous Miss Smith).
It’s a poor attempt to bring in some background about a character. What’s more, it just doesn’t sound realistic.
Why would a character go out of his way to talk about his mother? Does he care if you know? Why? Is he that much of a braggart? Something doesn’t seem to say that in the opening. More specifically, it’s the use of the formal “Mom.” If a character thinks of his mother detachedly enough to recognize her first by her fame, “my mother” or “Mother” would seem a bit more appropriate.
Rule Six: Stick To Your Style
This rule, while a tad obscure, is really when you begin refining your craft a bit. What is your style? It’s your manner of telling a story. More important than how
you tell it, however, is whether or not you consistently tell it the same way.
Let me give a better example, using a story written by a friend of mine. The story is a deeply enjoyable tale about a very generic kid who goes to another country, only to kill a family over there because they don’t cut his sandwich right. It’s a story about how ridiculous fanatic beliefs over anything can be, and how generic those beliefs really are.
The one moment where the story didn’t feel write was when this kid, partway through the story, opens up his sandwich in this new country. Up until that point, the mood is very bland and generic – countries are referred to by letters, his school is a number, and the kid himself isn’t named. However, at that moment, he shows nothing but horrified outrage at the sandwich he is eating. The style completely shifts, and it feels unnatural. It would have been better if, as he ate his sandwich at the beginning, more emphasis had been placed on the importance of his sandwich’s being cut the right way.
Actors are often taught that in order to truly immerse their audience, they can never let on that they are merely playing a role. With writing, it’s the same way. Draw your readers in: don’t remind them that what they’re reading isn’t true.
Mom and Mother aside, there’s still a problem with that passage. More specifically, this: Mom was critical of all my work, and I was sloppy, so I had to work hard.
It’s not as bad as some of what was written before. However, it’s still a very transparent way of describing your characters.
Rule Seven: Don’t Describe. Tell.
This is a commonly-repeated rule for writing, and it’s deeply important. Don’t describe what your characters are like: tell us what they do, and let us see.
It may not make sense to increase the length of this piece ridiculously, just to tell one thing. It depends on how important these characteristics are. However, if you wanted, you could retell that piece like this:
“I surveyed the kitchen, and shuddered. Unruly piles of paper littered the tables, mixed in with the occasional scrap of food. Cleaning my own mess would take longer than I would have liked.
“Couldn’t I just skip the kitchen?
I thought, then shook my head. Mother was the famous Miss Smith, after all—anything less than the best for her would surely result in pain on my part.”
This could be expanded more, of course. It would be possible to go on for pages and pages, describing the main character in detail. It might even use words well, and not waste space. Would it be worth it? No: chances are, nobody cares.
Rule Eight: Keep The Reader Interested
Some people reading this may be surprised that I’ve kept this one so far down on the list. To be sure, this is one of the most important aspects of writing. If your readers aren’t interested, they’ll put it down. Write interestingly: don’t tell the same story everybody else is telling. Yadda yadda yadda.
To be frank, this isn’t something I’d put much faith into. You know already if you’re telling an interesting story. If you’re not, then I hope you know what you’re doing.
Rather than go into detail with this one, I’ll just offer one tip that I think is important. What’s interesting to you and your friends may not be as interesting to other people. Beyond that, though, hopefully you know what’s good and what’s not.
Rather than keeping it interesting, work on keeping it all focused. Don’t worry about if it’s interesting: worry if you’ve made your point yet.
Rule Nine: Keep Your Point In Mind
This isn't a rule that can be explained well with a quick kitchen story. In addition, it's not really a “basic” rule. Rather, this is the rule that really separates good writing from truly great writing.
What does it mean? Well, when you write, you generally have a reason. Maybe you're trying to talk about the futilities of escaping fate, or you're explaining the horrors of a corporate life. In any event, look at everything you've written. Does it contribute toward your main theme? If not, don't panic. As I said, this is about great writing—it's nothing to worry about from the very beginning. However, I've found that learning this early tends to help writers focus their ideas, if nothing else.
One of the best examples of this comes from The Great Gatsby, considered one of the greatest novels of the last century. One theme of that novel comes from a line stated by the titular character: “Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!” To emphasize the futility of altering time, the novel is phrased mostly from words relating to time. It doesn't annoy casual readers of the book, and it adds a new layer of meaning for people who want to understand the message of the book. (You can read it yourself, if you so desire, here
Now, you're mostly through this list, reading the guidelines for beginning writers. You guess you've learned now exactly what makes writing good. With just a little practice, you can take these rules, construct a simple format, and publish great piece of literature after great piece of literature. A happily-ever-after story if ever there was one.
Sadly, that's not how it works. There's one thing still holding you back.
Rule Ten: Don’t Believe Any Rules You Read
When all is said and done, no guideline can suffice. There is no one formula to becoming a good writer; perhaps the greatest pieces of literature ever written defy all the rules. Never let a list telling you what not to do hold you back. You might miss the best opportunities of your writing if you do.
James Joyce is the author of the excellent novel Ulysses
, which I mentioned earlier. Ulysses
is considered by many to be the single greatest novel of the 20th century. It didn't get there by following any
rules I've mentioned to date. The novel randomly changes styles (well, not randomly, but that's how it would first appear), starting as a basic story, changing to a unique newspaper style, switching to a play format for a little while, and ending with a long and drawn-out monologue. It's confusing, hard to read, and deliberately attempts to use every word contained in the English language. In short, it breaks most of the rules that I've stated previously.
Vladimir Nabakov is a Russian considered another great stylist. His novel Lolita
is both meaningful and an absolute pleasure to read: he delighted in the use of language, and his love of writing shines through. The story begins, basically, asking the reader what sort of twisted mind would ever conceive of such a story. Is there a theme to that? Not that I know of. In my opinion, it was Nabakov having fun. Fun is important for writing: that's something that not many lists will say. And it might not have deeper meaning, but it's still great writing.
A later work of Nabakov's, Pale Fire
, is a poem, but the story lies not in the poem itself, but rather in the deranged narrative of the poem's introduction. None of the rules I mentioned would help in writing a piece like that. I don't think any set of rules would produce work like that.
And of all the works impossible to produce, it is James Joyce's final piece, Finnegans Wake
, that is possibly the finest—and most stunning—example. The work is impossible to describe: an amalgam of languages and concepts that apparently promotes the theory of circular history. If you want to see what writing can become after a long period of work, you can try to read it here
. Even with the partial interpretations that site offers, however, you will find making progress into the story's meaning nearly impossible. Writing a piece like that is insane, and breaks literally every rule in every guide to writing I have ever read. However, there is no denying the genius behind that piece.
Joyce and Nabakov are just two writers. Many more have broken the conventions I have discussed here, as well. However, these ten guidelines should help you improve your writing. Starting with keeping your writing slim, progressing to the addition of characterization and themes, and ending with a complete disregard to most rules set in stone, this guide should help you at least a little in terms of becoming a more proficient writer. I hope it helps you with your work, as much as it helped me to write it.