WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose


WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

Item one: if you’re calling it prose, my bet is on it being neither clear nor uncluttered.


We’re going to do this one by example, because I think it’s the best way to get the point across. So here goes.

Somewhere in the sky over Dallas, a blue red-breasted bird chirped from time to time.

1) In the sky. This is a bird. When we picture birds, they’re in the sky. No need to specify that here.

2) A blue red-breasted bird. There are a few ways of dealing with this. One would be to scrap adjectives altogether and just call a bird a bird. However–does the reader need to know that this bird is blue and red-breasted? If they do, do a little research. Google ‘blue-red breasted bird’. Oh, hey, look at those results–a bluebird is blue and red-breasted. Most people know that. You can just call it a bluebird, and provide absolutely as much description in a much smaller wordcount.

A note here–this is why it’s crucial for a writer to have a good working vocabulary. Why say ‘he walked to the store in a loose and blubbery fashion’ when you can say ‘he walked to the store, jiggling’? Or, even better– ‘he wobbled to the store’?

Now, mind you. There are times, especially in humor, where ‘a loose and blubbery fashion’ fits perfectly. But if you’re not going for special writerly effects, and you just need to provide information, the fewer words you do it in, the better it sinks in.

3) From time to time. Okay. I ask, again–is this need-to-know information? Basically–is it important that the reader understands, in this very sentence, that this bird not only chirps once, but repeatedly, at unspecified and probably not regular times?

If it is–take a deep breath here–I’d recommend an adverb.

What? You ask, monocle askew. But adverbs are the great Satan! They’re the devil standing in the way of a peaceful society! They murdered my mother!

Well, I’ll ask you how that happened later, for sure. That ly combination is pretty pointy, but rarely ends in death for those involved. However, let me take a moment to broadcast some unavoidable truth in your general vicinity, like a homeless guy passing gas on a city bus:

Adverbs exist for a reason.

Should you use a ton of them? No. Moderation in all things. But when you have a situation like this, where you have a piece of information that needs to be imparted and the alternative is a long and overused modifying phrase, reach for intermittently, or periodically.

Have some care, of course, in how you deploy them. Some of these little parachuters have been on one too many drops, and we’re so sick of them we’d be more than happy to blow them out of the sky. ‘Occasionally’, which it might occur to you to use here, is one of them.

So, when faced with the unavoidable adverb, go fancy. Intermittently or periodically say the same damn thing, with a little less common wear. I might even take a stab at using ‘infrequently’, but I don’t think I would here–infrequently, after all, puts the emphasis on the bird not chirping more often than otherwise, and therefore doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

Our fixed up sentence is, therefore,

Somewhere over Dallas, a bluebird chirped intermittently.

Which is a lot shorter, more direct, and better. And, yes, I itch to strike that ‘intermittently’ too, but you need to know what you need to know. So. You’re welcome.

But here’s the thing, kiddos. You’ve all heard this before. Practically every craft blog on the interwebs has a section on prose clarity, and many of them are much more comprehensive than mine.

What I want to do is, actually, call attention to a phrase I used throughout this little experiment: what does the reader need to know?

People are remarkably imaginative. They’re more than willing to fill informational gaps with information of their own choosing. For instance, if you asked ten different people to draw you a picture of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, you’d get ten very different portraits, even though he’s well-described in the course of the novel. You’d probably get messy clothes and shining crazy eyes in every one–well, an attempt at them, at least–because these things are vital elements of the man’s character. But the little details, well. People are happy enough to imagine.
This is because they don’t really matter.

Whether your character is blonde or brunette, green eyed or brown, tall or short, lanky or plump–unless these things are also a part of this character’s personality, their page presence (like that one?), they aren’t important.

So if you’ve been indulging yourself in the little things, it’s time to diet. See how much you can convey through simple nouns and verbs, scene setting and character interaction. A call for minimalism should never be a call for lost detail, but a call for detail more carefully sown. After all:

Why waste time describing every map section of Hogwarts when you can describe the teachers and students, and the things they do and interact with? JK Rowling told you more about Hogwarts with her moving portraits and magical candies than she ever did actually talking about Hogwarts. Take a lesson from her.

Leaving you now with a list of modifiers I’m sick of seeing, and ways to say the same thing more prettily:

1) Often. I’m sick of often. Instead, try frequently or commonly, if you must at all.
2) Nearly. This is a hard one, along with its evil twin, almost. The best thing I can say here is just try not to use them. If you’re nearly blind, then what the hell are you? Nearsighted or farsighted, maybe. Purblind. Just like if you’re nearly asleep, you’re probably dozing or snoozing. Flex those vocabulary muscles, boys n’ girls.
3) Rarely. Again–if you rarely participate, what are you actually doing? Lurking, possibly? Skulking?

Remember–the more modifiers you use, the more modified your writing is. And nobody likes modified. We paid for the good stuff, don’t water it the fuck down.

Much love.


3 thoughts on “WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

  1. “Item one: if you’re calling it prose, my bet is on it being neither clear nor uncluttered.” LOL. Exactly.

    On point two, about vocabulary – I think POV plays into it. If you’re telling a story from the view of, say, a 12-year-old, a bird with blue feathers and a red chest works. He might not know it’s technically a bluebird. Playing within the character’s vocabulary can add characterization.

    1. I agree, but there are still concise and, um. Non-concise. Ways of doing it. A twelve year old might not know a bluebird is a bluebird, but I’ll be honest, I still think calling it a blue bird with a red chest is only necessary if the bird becomes important later on. If it doesn’t, our tweenager might be better off just calling it a bird and eating pizza, or whatever it is tweenagers do now. πŸ˜›

      There’s a whole debate (which would make a good blog post!) about POV here, and the difference between what your character would SAY and what’s acceptably coloured by his or her viewpoint in the narrative action. It’s fascinating, and you brought up an awesome point. Dangit, Allison, this might make me write another blog this week. πŸ˜›

      1. LOL. Glad I can help! πŸ™‚
        For the record, I don’t know what tweenagers do either, and I almost have one. Yikes.
        You’re right about describing only what’s necessary. The tweenager would only pay attention to the bird as long as it’s doing something interesting, after all.

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