Put Your Prose on a Diet

I keep hearing the term ‘muscular prose’. Ooh-er! It sounds a bit all right, doesn’t it? I mean, muscles are better than flab, in fiction as in life. But what does it mean and how do you achieve it?

One of the things I’ve discovered in my hunt for the muscular is it’s associated with male writers. Hemingway wrote muscular prose. Also, Cormac McCarthy. Women’s writing is lyrical, don’t you know. Spiritual. Uplifting.


Get this description from The Atlantic Monthly:

The masculine counterpart to the ladies’ prose poetry is a bold, Melvillean stiltedness, better known to readers of book reviews as “muscular” prose. Charles Frazier, Frederick Busch, and many other novelists write in this idiom, but the acknowledged granddaddy of them all is Cormac McCarthy.  The Atlantic

I’ll grant you I’m taking that paragraph out of context but I have to ask… Say, what now?

Here’s a secret: I don’t like McCarthy’s writing. Oh, he’s very good at what he does. He’s undeniably brilliant. But bleak. Good grief, Oliver Twist had more laughs in the workhouse than any of McCarthy’s characters on the road. His writing is the literary equivalent of Brutalist architecture: grey, hard-edged, and without warmth.


The Barbican, London: Brutalist Architecture at its best. Worst?

To each her own, of course, but I like nuance in my writing. A little wit. Listen, if it was good enough for Shakespeare…

All that said, I do think you can learn a lot from reading Hemingway, Busch, and, yes, McCarthy. Even if you decide you don’t care for them, you can’t deny the power of their work. It’s the power that draws me — even if I am a female writer and, apparently, incapable of developing muscles.

The point is, even if you don’t want to emulate those beefy boys, you should still aim to make your prose as lean and powerful as possible. This has been on my mind in recent weeks. You see,  I’m currently on the fifth and, I hope, final edit of my new book. At one point, the novel ran a whopping 120,000 words. It’s down to 91,000 now, but I know I can still do better. By the time I’m done, I hope it’ll be down at least another 2-5,000.

Think about those figures: I cut almost 30,000 words from the book and lost nothing. In fact, the gouging made the story stronger and more potent.

So, how did I manage to cut such a huge swathe of material? I put it on a diet.

Eliminate the non-essentials

To begin with, I cut chapters that were repetitions. It’s a mystery story so I want to make sure the reader gets certain plot points. That means in my early drafts, I tend to repeat myself. A lot. (To the tune of almost 30,000 words, in fact.) Pruning all these repetitions makes for a much tighter narrative.

Years ago I read an Anne Rice book. I would love her, I was told, so I started with her most recent release, The Witching Hour. Oh dear. First she told us the story. That took about 60 pages. Then she told us the story again. And again. And again. It wasn’t just me who had an issue with it. One reviewer said,

But despite its tireless narrative energy, despite its relentless inventiveness, the book is bloated, grown to elephantine proportions because more is included than is needed. Repetition is a problem; the same stories are told several times, accruing more detail with each telling. Also, the principal characters have a way of regurgitating what they’ve learned, even though the reader was with them when they learned it. At times the prose, which for the most part is solid and workmanlike, even lyrical in its evocation of the architecture and vegetation of Haiti and New Orleans, collapses into grinding cliche; editorially, rigor of excision is sadly wanting.

New York Times

Sadly, I was so put off by the book I’ve never read another by the author.

If you’re not sure you can identify the blubber in your stories, then find some readers you trust and get their honest feedback. Then cut. Don’t be precious about it. Cut! If you feel anxious about the process, save your darlings in a document called ‘deleted scenes’. It’s there if you later change your mind. You probably won’t though.

As every scene must count, so must every word.

Have your readers identify your most-repeated words then do a search for them in the document. I have a weird fondness for ‘both’. No, I don’t know why. Once I realised it, I started to make a search for the word part of my editing process. Yesterday, I cut 48 instances down to five.

Get rid of the waffle words. You know the ones I mean, very, slightly, rather, quite. Waffle words are vague and add nothing to the prose. Consider:

“He was quite tall with a very red face and a slight tremor.”


“He was six-foot two with a ruddy complexion. His right hand trembled when he reached for the cup…”

The second is better, but a bit ‘police blotter’ in tone. I’d question why these specific details matter. Unless they tie in with a description of the killer, for instance, you could probably get rid of them.

Your description should be specific and individual so your characters feels real.

“His cheeks and tremor reminded Jill of her father and his ‘nightcaps’ that often left her mother bloody and bruised.”

Now that’s more than simple details or trite description. It has emotional resonance and hints at how ‘Jill’ feels about this man.

Unless you’re John Steinbeck, keep your descriptions to two details. “The big red balloon” works better than “the big red shiny balloon”, though neither says much of worth. If you want to make your description more poetic, then do it with gusto. Learn from the best. Here’s Steinbeck in Cannery Row:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

I mention this because while you’re making your prose all toned and tanned and all, you must be careful not to destroy its spirit. Muscular be damned. Give me some heart!

Going back to toned prose, here are some more essentials:

Get rid of the adverbs. One strong verb knocks the block off all your modifiers: For instance, compare “He danced gracefully” to “He glided.”

The passive voice must, by you, be avoided.

How your Computer can help

Use the ‘Search’ option in Word to hunt for your most oft-repeated words or phrases. (Go to the Home page and click on ‘Find’. Then enter the word you are looking for in the search box. Prepare to be horrified by the number of hits that will appear.)

You can also search for parts of words. For instance, if you search for ‘LY’, you’ll spot many of those adverbs. Mind you, Word will also include things like LYing, sLY and fLYing.

Word can also identify the passive voice in your document (along with fragments and many other sins.) This site has a handy how-to description and pictures to guide you: Checking for the Passive Voice in Word

There are other tools available on the net. For instance:

This site helps you where your most frequent phrases are lurking:  Frequent Phrase

This one, too, is helpful: Hemingway app You enter your text and it colour-codes things like passive voice, adverbs and difficulty of sentence structure.

Well, I have to go hunt some laughs. ‘Laugh’ is my second-most commonly used word.

Obviously NOT a muscular writer.



About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Geri-Schear/e/B00ORWA3EU
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