Secrets to great prose writing

When you send your stuff off to an agent, 9 times out of 10 your work won't actually be read. It'll be 'looked at'.

What does that mean? It means that an agent (or junior reader) will simply glance at the first page or two of your submission. In a large majority of cases, authors will give themselves away as amateurish in the opening chapter.

If you're one of them, then the agent will read no further. Sure, the agent doesn't know about your story, your characters, or your brilliant ideas. The fact is that if your writing style is poor, then those things are irrelevant.

Artists must be craftsmen too - geniuses always are.This page gives you some things to watch out for - and tells you how to make your work stand out.


Cliche is the first enemy of every author. It's so easy to do:

  • His eyes were blue enough to swim in.
  • She felt a sharp pain, as though cut by a knife
  • The breeze whispered softly through the gently waving trees

Prose like this is dull, dull, dull! It's like watching a movie that we've all seen before. It's impossible to make your story & characters seem fresh if you use language that's stale & old.



Also note that cliches are often rubbish. A knife does not in fact cause a sharp pain - it causes a dull one. The colour blue does not indicate something swimmable - a sky is blue but can't be swum in; water, which can be, is seldom blue. Aiming for accuracy in your prose is a wonderful way of making sure that you avoid cliche. "His eyes had the very pale blue of a northern sunrise". That's still not brilliant, maybe, but it's a lot, lot better than the cliche.


When you write, you should treat your manuscript as though you had to pay 10p a word for the privilege of writing it. Look at this para:-

He walked slowly away trying not to make any kind of sound. His feelings were in a turmoil, roiling and boiling, a tumult of emotion. He couldn't help reiterating to himself again and again that he had done the right thing; that he had done everything he could. He insisted to himself that she too would surely see this one day.

Yuk! Wouldn't that go better as simply:

He crept away, his feelings in turmoil. He had done the right thing, he told himself. One day she would see this too.

That's 23 words instead of 61 - almost 1/3 the length. And everything about it is better. It doesn't just say it quicker; it says it better. In the first version, all that verbiage just got in the way.

If you've finished your book, then go through and eliminate at least 10% of what's there. Then you should probably go through again and eliminate a further 5%. Then give it one more read. You can more tips on how to cut your work here.

Good writers work hard at their writing. A bad sentence bothers them and they'll keep going until they get it right. If you don't have that attitude to your work, then it's about time you did.

Trust the reader

Another amateurish trait is that of not trusting the reader. We get a lot of clients who write something rather like the following:

He rolled in agony. Fire shot through every limb. He felt like screaming out in pain. His entire face was distorted with the grotesque effort of not shouting out.

That short snippet uses a huge number of very forceful words (agony, fire, screaming, distorted, grotesque). You don't need that many words to do the job. It's as though the writer of this snippet doesn't trust the reader to get the point, so he/she keeps making the same point again and again like some classic pub bore. Readers will 'get it', as long as you write in clear, forceful, non-repetitive language.

Double adjectives

Just to bang away on an increasingly familiar theme, double adjectives are almost always a no-no. The second adjective almost always weakens the first. Compare this:

He leaned over the black iron railings, the coarse grey cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp, treacherous spike.

Just deleting some of the adjectives improves this immediately:

He leaned over the iron railings, the coarse cloth of his sleeve catching on the sharp spike.

But you should always let your nouns & verbs do most of the work. A still better version of this sentence would be:

As he leaned over the railings, his sleeve caught on the spike.

If you've got an adjective habit, then always check back over your work to ensure that you can't simply cut 'em. Good writers use adjectives sparingly.

Sentence rhythms

Short sentences are strong. You should certainly use them. But not too much. They irritate quite rapidly. Like a really annoying backbeat. Like this, for example.

Equally, if you go in for longer sentences replete with abstract nouns, then you should vary those too. Prose should ebb and flow, speed up & slow down. Check to make sure that you have both very short sentences and long ones too (20 words plus). If you don't, it's quite likely that you've slipped into a rather monotonous rhythm.


We talk more about dialogue here, but for now just bear in mind that dialogue should usually speed up your writing. The rhythm will quicken, sentence structures will become choppier and more broken. If you go in for long speeches (4-5 lines or more) all the time, the dialogue will quickly come across as heavy & didactic. If in doubt, speed it up.

Touches of genius

The best authors will occasionally find a phrase that just perfectly captures something: an unexpected word use that shocks the reader into understanding.

... a quick succession of busy nothings

... one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window

These are all snippets of genius by writers of genius (Respectively Jane Austen, Graham Greene & Raymond Chandler). You can't try to force that kind of stuff into your writing, still less should you try to achieve that on every paragraph or even every page. But a scatter of diamonds here and there has a wondrous effect overall. Go for it, if you can. If you can't, admire.

And if you want more help?

Then get it! We run courses and offer feedback on your work. If you want to develop your writing, then get in touch. We'd be delighted to help.