How Fiction Writers Can Improve The Quality of Their Prose
Most fiction writers come to the page with a passion for either language or storytelling.
My own strengths lie in the latter. I love mapping plots arcs, developing characters, and crafting fictional worlds. Yet for me, translating those story elements onto the page has always felt like pulling teeth. I simply don’t have a natural knack for prose, which is why I’ve spent the past several years working hard to improve the quality of my writing.
If you’d like to do the same, today’s article is for you. In this mega-guide, I’m sharing each specific element of prose you should consider at every step in the writing process, breaking down the overwhelm of learning to write wonderfully readable prose so you can work to level up your writing skills with confidence. Shall we begin?
How to improve your prose as you draft…
First drafts aren’t meant to read like finished books. Their purpose lies in getting the story in your head down on paper, so you can later revise and refine your story to high shine. To spend too much time tailoring your prose as you draft is usually a waste of effort, as there’s a good chance that same prose will end up on the cutting room floor.
Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put thought into your prose as you draft. Bearing in mind the following five elements will help you craft a more cohesive narrative that will require less overhaul later in your writing process:
Element #1: Voice
Most stories are told through the lens of a narrator or point-of-view character. The more that character’s voice colors the narrative on a line-by-line basis, the more engaging a story will be — and the first draft is the perfect place to explore your character’s voice. For more on this topic, don’t miss this read.
Element #2: Point-of-view & Tense
To avoid an incredibly frustrating edit, the first draft is the place to decide which point-of-view and tense are right for your book. Will you write in first-, second-, or third-person? In past or present tense? Will you switch point-of-view or tense throughout your book? If you’re unsure, give this article a read.
Element #3: Atmosphere
Atmosphere is the emotional landscape created by external sources in a scene, such as the setting, action, dialogue, or context in which the scene takes place. A reunion scene between characters, for example, may have a joyful atmosphere. Take time to consider the atmosphere in each scene you draft, and you’ll craft prose that paints a fuller picture of the story you long to tell.
Element #4: Mood
In any given scene, the mood is the emotional atmosphere readers experience as a result of the point-of-view character’s inner narrative. For example, readers may feel sorrow as the point-of-view character reminisces on the loss of a friend during the reunion scene described above.
With every scene you draft, consider the mood you’d like to set. The more you write with your point-of-view character’s inner world in mind, the more of an emotional connection you’ll create with readers through your prose.
Element #5: Purpose
When seeking to improve your prose as you draft, it’s important to consider purpose. Are you writing lines just because they popped into your head or because you’re striving to hit a certain word count? Or, do they actually play a role in the greater context of your story?
It’s okay to use the first draft to explore your characters, plot, and world. You don’t need to justify every line you write. But if you want to save yourself from endless trimming during revisions, take care to avoid writing as much filler as you can. Be intentional, and you’ll be happier with the prose you write.
How to improve your prose as you revise…
Revising is the process of improving the content of a story. It doesn’t concern itself with spelling, grammar, or readability but rather with story elements such as plot, character, setting, and theme. Still, there remain plenty of ways to improve your prose as you revise your story. Here are the five main elements you’ll want to consider:
Element #1: Exposition
Exposition is any information that gives context to a story: character backstory, character relationships, information about the setting or history of the world, and so on.
As you revise, consider how you’ve relayed exposition in your prose. Does it blend seamlessly into your narrative or have you plopped it down in overwhelming info dumps? Does the exposition meld with your character’s knowledge and voice or does it read more like a passage from a textbook?
Element #2: Description
The most immersive descriptions are written through the lens of a point-of-view character. Consider your own descriptions as you revise. Does your prose reveal what your point-of-view character would truly see, taste, hear, touch, and smell? Click here for more guidance on writing immersive descriptions.
Element #3: Action
In every scene you revise, consider how you’ve written your character’s movements and body language, as well as any action sequences that take place. Have you given readers enough information to visualize what your characters are doing? Are your characters’ actions true to their development? Do you overuse any body language ticks, such as smirking or wringing hands? Have you included too many action cues, thus disrupting the pace of your scene?
Element #4: Dialogue
As you revise, review every line of dialogue you’ve written. What purpose does each line serve in the narrative? Does it reveal important context information or characterization? Does it move the plot forward? How do your characters’ conversations affect their relationships?
Consider whether your dialogue rings true to your characters as well. Many writers contrive dialogue to force drama rather than trusting in the characters they’ve created. Inexperienced writers also tend to treat communication as a solely verbal act, leading to dialogue with little subtlety or realism.
Element #5: Inner Dialogue
Finally, consider your narrator or point-of-view character once again. Does their inner dialogue ring true to their voice? Have you crafted prose that reflects their perspective as your story unfolds? How have you given them an emotional stake in the story that helps readers connect to their inner narrative?
How to improve your prose as you edit…
Editing is the final stage of the writing process, where you’ll seek to improve the quality of your writing on a line-by-line and word-by-word basis to tell the best possible story. This is also where you’ll complete the most detailed work as you seek to level up your prose. Ready to dive in? Here are the major elements to consider when editing your manuscript:
Element #1: Diction
Otherwise known as word choice, diction plays a powerful role in defining effective prose. When editing, be mindful of your word choice. Seek out weak verbs and adverbs, adjective overload, clichés, inaccurate vocabulary, and intensifiers — all of which (and more) we’ll discuss in depth in an upcoming article.
Element #2: Syntax
Also known as sentence structure, syntax plays an equally powerful role in defining effective prose. Play around with dependent and independent clauses, fragments, and single-word sentences. By varying your sentence structure, your writing will take on an ebb and flow, making for a more readable narrative.
If you use the same sentence structure on repeat, do so with intention. A series of short or choppy sentences can increase the pace of a story — an effective technique in many action scenes and moments of mental instability — while longer sentences tend to provide a more languid reading experience.
Element #3: Brevity
More is not often more in prose. Though your language doesn’t need to be spartan, don’t overcomplicate your writing. Seek out wordy sentences. See if you can’t say the same thing with five fewer words.
A major exception to this is Show, Don’t Tell. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Telling may favor brevity, but it also makes for dry reading. That said, showing can easily turn into purple prose, so work to find a healthy balance between the two.
Element #4: Simplicity
While I’m quoting authors, let’s turn our ears to John Grisham, who said “There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”
Insecure writers often try to compensate for a lack of skill or experience by striving to sound more academic in their prose. Nothing sounds more contrived. Keep it simple, writer, and you’ll keep real.
Element #5: Metaphors & Similes
Nothing indicates poor writing like cliché metaphors and similes, especially those describing a character’s eyes. His gaze was a storm at sea. Her eyes gleamed like twin jewels. Writer, it’s time to get creative. If you’re going to use a metaphor or simile, get inside your character’s head and consider how they would truly describe the object at hand. They can’t know his eyes were a storm at sea if they’ve never seen the sea.
Element #6: Dialogue & Action Tags
“Said” is not dead, my friend. Many writers make the mistake of thinking more descriptive dialogue tags create a stronger narrative. But in truth, an overuse of notable tags can slow the pace of a conversation. “Said,” on the other hand, is a word so common that it doesn’t disrupt the flow of a narrative.
Replacing dialogue tags with action tags can also create a more immersive story, as they still indicate the speaker while also helping readers further visualize the scene. For more on both of these topics, make sure to give this article on dialogue a read.
Element #7: Micro-Pacing
While we’re on the topic of flow, are you disrupting the pace of your scene by using filter words or other unnecessary modifiers? Phrases like “he saw,” “she watched as,” “a moment passed,” and “suddenly” can usually be cut without affecting readers’ understanding of the narrative, making for stronger prose.
With so many elements to consider, improving the quality of your prose can feel overwhelming. In showcasing which elements to consider at each stage in the writing process, I hope I’ve given you confidence in your ability to become the writer you long to be. Remember, growth takes time and determination. Be patient with yourself.
Read as much quality writing as you can, and don’t be afraid to mimic other authors. It’s often in copying the work of others that we discover what does and does not work for us. I’d also encourage you to read your work aloud. Doing so activates a different section of your brain, allowing you to think more critically about the choices you’ve made in your writing.
Finally, know that you are not any less of a writer for needing to work so diligently to improve your prose. A little natural talent never hurts, but writing is still a craft. Anyone with the will to improve their work can do so — and will, so long as they remain determined in their course. So keep working, my friend. Quality writing is within reach.