Writing Perfect Prose

Have you ever heard Churchill’s saying, “Perfection is the enemy to progress”? As a writer, I suspect that you know what I mean. Sometimes I see writers slave over a story in an effort to make it “perfect,” but in doing so they spend so much time that they inevitably slow their production level down to a trickle.

You can’t make a living writing perfect novels. If you only get one out every ten years, it won’t be enough to live on.

How can you avoid that trap? Is it okay to simply say, “Well, I made two passes and it’s going to have to be close enough”? I don’t think so.

When an editor, agent, critic, or reader picks up your book, I think that each of them
would say, “I hope that this is the most amazing experience ever!”

So they come to your work with great hopes.

And when they start reading, you need to feed those hopes. You need to pleasantly surprise them.

You can surprise them with cool ideas that twist and build in unexpected ways, diving deeper and deeper, leading to explosive discoveries and powerful emotional climaxes.

Or maybe your story will build powerfully, so that the reader is thrust headlong into a tale and can hardly wait to flip a page to find out what happens next.

Or maybe your prose will rivet the reader in such a way that the reader feels like they’ve never seen the world that way before, and they love it. (I call this “achieving a hyper-realistic state.”)

In short, creating a great story requires you to develop fascinating story ideas, then create a riveting story from it, and do it in a way that uses heightened language so that the reader is surprised and delighted just by your literary skills.

As authors, if we try to do this, we may spend a great deal of time polishing our prose, but is there a faster way than to simply go over it time and time again, looking for ways to improve the minutiae?

I think so. In the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Renni and Brown discuss a concept called “Triage Editing.” This is where you imagine that your story has just been taken to a hospital and a doctor looks at it and declares, “This story needs only minor work!” or, “If we don’t fix this plot, the story will die on the table!”

You can be your own triage editor. When you look at a story, look for big items first. Ask yourself questions like: Does the basic story concept work? Does it surprise readers? Does it deepen in unexpected ways? Can I build some surprises into it?

Then I look at my plotting and ask basic questions such as: Does the opening scene hook the reader solidly? Do I get to my inciting incident quickly? Do I have any unnecessary scenes? Is there a scene I need that isn’t here? Does my point of view work? Do my characters feel properly motivated? Does each scene build on the last? How well does my climax work? Does the climax contain an insight that the reader will find valuable? Does my denouement leave my reader crying?

Lastly, I look at the little things: the overall writing quality of the tale. I look at my description and ask myself, Does the reader see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the story? Is the reader led on an emotional and intellectual journey? Are my metaphors fresh and powerful? Do I use poetic devices well? Is my dialog realistic? Do I hook my reader from one paragraph to the next?

In short, dozens of elements come into play even in a short story, and as an author I want to try to be exceptional at every level.

But here is the thing that I have discovered.  When you make a pass where you are looking at the “big things,” like your basic premises and your plot, as you fix those items, you’ll naturally find yourself tweaking your tale on a line-by-line basis.

After three or four drafts, you can usually knock a story into excellent shape, and somewhere about then, I tend to find that if I am editing, I’m doing so for diminishing returns. After four or five passes, I find it best to consider the work “done.”

There is an occasional work where I feel that I want to strive for perfection, and I’ve learned over the years that if you do make striving to be exceptional a habit, your storytelling skills sort of blossom, and with training, you find yourself writing first drafts that are darned near perfect. Indeed, several times lately I’ve found that when I finish writing a tale, once I look at the big-ticket items in the story and find that it works at every level that I care about, there just isn’t any need to polish it down more and more.

So look at doing a triage edit, handling the big things, and then allow your rewriting to polish the story until every surface is beautiful. But don’t aim for perfection.

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