Writing Prose

After transferring all my manuscripts’ bits and pieces into Scrivener, I spent the next few days re-arranging my files’ hierarchy – I can actually find stuff now! [yay!]

During all that frenetic shuffling, I discovered a few things: the story arcs and plotting are solid, characterisation is strong and organic, the dialogue flows in a very human fashion, and the make-believe world is believable.

However [damn those howevers!], my prose is unforgivably abysmal.

Can anyone suggest methods or techniques or exercises to help me remedy this problem of clunky and awkward prose? Does reading or writing poetry help?

I suggest you post an example as “abysmal” does not tell anyone exactly what is wrong.


Ye gods, no. I’d rather not subject myself to that, as I’m already feeling wretched about my prose non-skills. Later on, I’d certainly welcome some feedback, but there’s nothing that I can let anyone read at this moment.

My first drafts tend to look like scripts, plenty of dialogue and activity that [vaguely] resembles stage direction. Kinda like dining on the moon – great chow, but no atmosphere. Maybe instead of ‘abysmal’ I should’ve said ‘utterly absent’, but that’s a painful [!] thing to admit.

Are there any novelists/storytellers, whom you feel do a great job at narrative prose, that you can recommend I study?

A little role play may help.

Put yourself into the character and the scene then freeze it.

Sit back and think to yourself how would you (the character) see things and how would you act towards things if you were really there. What would you notice and what body language would you use? What are your actions and responses? Do they feel genuine of does it feel “canned”

When writing dialogue the first rule is to FORGET all writing rules. And keep in mind this. WHen one is in a comfortable environment they notice many things and tend to speak in longer sentences, they may use more body language to express excitement, anger, or discomfort. During action or nervous or emotional parts people tend to “shorten” their sentences and their focus. Also people do not speak in monotone. They have tons of inflections and body language that are part of the conversation


Writing dialogue is more kin to a phone conversation, where only the words and infelctions/stress are conveyed and everything else is left up to our imaginations. When you write you may have to “cue” the reader of the character’s emotional state (body language) subtley to convey the mood and make sure the dialog matches the body language.

So when you are writing a scene with dialog remember noticeable (but subtle) BODY LANGUAGE can cue the reader to a characters state of mind during a conversation then the reader will use their “imagination” to fill in the gaps of what that character is doing during the dialog.

Things like crossing your arms (defense, stand offish)
Crossing one’s legs (comfort or at ease, or discomfort, nervous)
Leaning forward (aggressive, excited, conspirital, nervous, paranoid)


Just a thought. I could be way off base of what you are asking but in the end it truly depends on your style of writing.

Hope that helps?

Raddish, my little plump pink one, wrote :

Chéri nobody can be as bad as the fool, and he writes raddish :blush: oops! sorry, rubbish all over the place. go on, gi`s a look :wink:

Le D :smiling_imp:

PS Chéri beware the winged wackoe! :open_mouth: his idea of roll play is "You show me yours, and Ill show you mine."

Get a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style if you don’t already have one. Take advantage of the dictionary app that comes with OS X. And keep writing. Talent is a blade. Everybody gets one, but whether you get a pocketknife or a katana, your blade is always blunt at the beginning. You have to keep writing to sharpen it.

Hello Radish,

I notice, ahem, you are in Portland, Oregon?? WELCOME!!! (Ha! Just a few more and we’ll be able to take over the Scrivener forum, as I’ve planned all along! :smiling_imp:)

Oh, er, yes, hello. If you do, indeed, live in Portland, Oregon, it is a writer’s mecca of sorts. There are so many ways you can develop your prose writing skills. You can join a writer’s group, take writing classes, do workshops, go on retreats, definitely read books that really excite YOU, not just one’s other people recommend, and notice what excites you about them. Find other writers to talk to about writing. It’s all here. If you are interested in workshops and/or classes, I can send you a private email if you like with a few links. I’m certainly not going to have an exhaustive list.

But if you are serious about writing and want to write well, I think you will have to take the plunge and be willing to find a kindly but honest group of other writers and show your stuff to them. It takes courage to be a writer! I was stuck for years because I was terrified of other people seeing my work. Then when I was at Columbia U. (majoring in philosophy) I partook of the creative writing program there and dove in head first. It was an incredible experience. Same thing with my non-fiction project–my dissertation–I got stuck, fearing the defense and other people judging me. I finally took the plunge and had an amazing time of it and learned a lot. AND now have my Ph.D.!!

It’s all about learning and growing and writing. Not about protecting yourself.

So, take the plunge, dear Radish! You can do it in a safe way with people who only have an investment in helping you be a better writer.

Just my 2 cents!!


Wock, this isn’t a problem for me – I’ve got a cinema going on in my head 24/7 [bloody distracting, that]. I sit back, watch the characters do their thing, and take copious notes. Body language, habits of interaction, and speech patterns are distinctly character-specific, no matter how I try to coax [or threaten] a character to do or say something other than what he/she insists on doing or saying at any given moment.

Heh. :slight_smile: Again, not a problem. Yeah, that probably sounds arrogant, but I say it in all humility – for most of the dialogue, I’m basically just taking dictation from my characters, who are rarely at a loss for words.

Michael, I do have and use a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – I’m a [nearly fanatical] devotee of it! And as a logophile I’m a big believer of dictionaries, being particular fond of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.

In all frankness, my worst foible at this time is not the dialogue or characters’ [inter]actions or the story structure, but my ability to describe all that – my prose tends to be very dry, and very trite. It lacks poetry, it lacks the ‘music’ of the written word. It is, in a single syllable, “meh”.

So I gotta figure out how to un-meh my rassa-frassin’ prose.

gasp of shock Oh, the fiend --he peeked!

Gimme some time to make something presentable –

Um, yikes.

Read it out loud. Although this isn’t the quickest way to detect wooden prose, it’s certainly the cheapest and easiest. Your ear readily separates “writing” from “speaking.”

Howdy, Alexandria! (and where do I sign up for this conquest?)

Ple-eeeeease do! I’m a current member of local writers group, and have been going over MHCC’s current catalogue for lit/comp, and there’s the weekly pilgrimage to Powell’s [just so you know I’m not vegetating].

Heh-heh-heh. Try being a commercial illustrator. If that doesn’t grow you a nice, thick, ego-repellant rhino-hide, nothing will. :smiling_imp:

Plunging, and dog-paddling. Woof. Wait – which way to the shore?!

Agreed, Ahab and that’s something I do all the time. But, oh, it has a price:

“Oh-hhh, the poor dear,” the onlookers muttered behind their hands while shaking their heads. “There she goes again, talking to herself. And in different voices, yet! Her doctors really ought to get her meds straightened out.”


I’d recommend doing the exercises in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft. I’ve mentioned it before in terms of how wonderful the section on Point of View is, but the other sections are also brilliant, imo.

There’s also John Gardner’s books on writing. They are from the early 80s (as I recall) but in the back of at least one of them was a section of exercise on writing prose that I found excellent. His books can be… um… annoying in their tone sometimes, but the information - especially on prose writing - is invaluable. I’d check your local library and see if they have any of them. That way you can see which one helps you most without having to purchase the lot of them. (It will also let you see if you can stand his attitude.)

Most how-to-write books (or many, at least) focus on the parts of fiction and structuring, but a few can help you get better at writing. You might also want to look at Janet Burroway’s Narrative Craft. It’s a text book (literally) but it uses examples, often whole short stories, to show how to do things.

When I was first teaching myself craft, I had two copies of an earlier edition - one for reading and one for highlighting. :slight_smile:

HTH :smiley:

I’m in similar straits. Read my work, and you can tell it was written by a metalhead. It’s all power chords and thumping bass. :slight_smile:

Ooh! I’ve got a copy of Steering the Craft – been a long while since I’d read it, so thanks for reminding me of that one. I’ll check with the library for Gardner’s and Burroway’s stuff.

You see that bowl of radishes there on your writing desk? You’ve gotta get rid of that! Eating so many radishes could deaden anyone’s prose. (A lesson for us all, dearly paid for by the late Kobo Abe.)

Real writers eat chocolate.


One way of potentially helping your prose, rather than to read more poetry, is to try the opposite:


That sharpens up most prose no end.


Moi?! Eat radishes??! But that would be cannibalism!

[there’s a story in there, somewhere,…]

Dark chocolate, if you please.

Adverbs, too. Hatehatekillkill.

@Radish: perhaps you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. Maybe you need to tighten your prose and make it more immediate, not “purple it up” with poetic turns of phrase.


Pretty much, I abstain from adjectives and adverbs – those’re cosmetic, and usually go in last, if at all. One of the things I’ve managed to retain from my college days [before I dropped out the second time] was to Practice An Economy Of Words – it’s that Mark Twain thing about ‘eschewing excess verbiage’.

Purple prose? None for me, thanks. I’m driving.