Tag Archives: prose style

Monday Craft Tips #6: Using your cognitive system to improve your prose style

Today, I thought I would pass on a tip for enriching your prose style. Pick about ten novels that you really love, settle down into a comfy nook and find 2 pages in these novels of really sparkling prose. Get out a notebook and copy these pages BY HAND. Please note that typing it into your computer is NOT allowed.


Because the whole point of this exercise is to get you to absorb high quality prose into your writing, without making your prose sound like a pale imitation of someone else’s. That’s why you’re only allowed two pages per novel.

Did I mention that each novel has to be by a different author?

The point of copying it out by hand, rather than typing, is because you want to allow your cognitive system to engage with the material. Putting on my cognitive science hat, I can tell you that although the cognitive system (the one to do with thinking, decision-making and memory) is very smart, it is also very SLOW.

Handwriting, slows down the rate of input into your mind, meaning that the cognitive system has a chance to grasp it. Whereas, if you type, your fingers will be going too fast for the cognitive system to really apprehend the words. And that is the whole point of this exercise, to get the cognitive system to absorb each prose style so that it will trickle down and make itself felt in your prose style.

Give it a try, and happy writing!

Have a wonderful week!


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Monday Tips: How to write glorious prose

I’ve just finished reading Janet Fitch’s WHITE OLEANDER and have just embarked on Juliet Marillier’s SON OF SHADOWS. Both books are great reads, even though they are very different in tone. But what makes them both so enjoyable is that the prose style is so great.
For example, Janet Fitch uses metaphors and similes to great effect.

“What was the best day of your life?” she asked me one afternoon as we lay on the free-form couch, her head on one armrest, mine on the other. Judy Garland sang on the stereo, “My Funny Valentine.”
“Today,” I said.
“No.” She laughed, throwing her napkin at me. “From before.”
I tried to remember, but it was like looking for buried coins in the sand. I kept turning things over, cutting myself on rusty cans, broken beer bottles hidden there, but eventually I found an old coin, brushed it off. I could read the date, the country of origin.
It was when we were living in Amsterdam.”

And Juliet Marillier uses words to evoke a long-ago past where people lived closer to the ghosts of their ancestors.

“That spring we had visitors. Here in the heart of the great forest, the old ways were strong despite the communities of men and women that now spread over our land, their Christian crosses stark symbols of a new faith. From time to time, travelers would bring across the sea tales of great ills done to folk who dared keep the old traditions. There were cruel penalties, even death, for those who left an offering maybe, for the harvest gods or thought to weave a simple spell for good fortune or use a potion to bring back a faithless sweetheart. The druids were all slain or banished over there.”

I hope that reading these authors will inspire all of us to write more poetically!

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Rosemary Sutcliff’s THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH

No-one knows what really happened to the Ninth Legion, the Hispana. All that is known is that it marched north into what is now Scotland to deal with the Painted People, and disappeared into the mists. A battered eagle, shorn of is wings is in the museum at Reading, having been found during the excavations of Silchester, formerly known as Calleva Atrebatum.

Out of these two facts, Rosemary Sutcliff has written a wonderfully resonant story about hard choices, bravery and the ways in which that bravery is rewarded. Or not. Along the way, she creates a protagonist who is a real hero, but does not see himself that way.

Marcus Flavius Aquila has only fragmentary memories of a father whom he adored. Because he lost that father at the age of 8, when, in 117 AD, the father marched north with the Ninth Legion and was never heard of again. Marcus wants to know what happened to his father. And out of that longing, Ms. Sutcliff spins a thread.

THE EAGLE is an impressively researched novel with lots of period detail to draw you into the world of the Roman Empire of circa 127 AD. But Ms Sutcliff is also a brilliant stylist who uses adjectives so brilliantly, you are glad she didn’t edit them out as we are so often told to do. Five stars.

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Watch out for those ‘tells’ in your prose style

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Next: I participate in a self-publishing webinar.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.


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