Five Keys to Punchier Prose

By Robin D. Laws

Although I’m not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I’ve been able to see certain issues crop up in the work of multiple authors. This process has improved not only those books, but my own work. It’s easier to see problematic material in someone else’s draft than in your own. Manuscript review has also crystallized my thoughts on how GUMSHOE, and particularly its scenarios, might be refined and better presented. While revising our internal writer’s guidelines to reflect these developing insights, we thought we’d open them up to a general audience by presenting key selections in this and next month’s installment of See P. XX.

Let’s reverse the universe’s usual polarity by moving from the general to the specific—from tips to punch up any piece of writing, to those applicable to roleplaying scenario writing, and finally to the finer points of GUMSHOE.

Punching Up Any Piece of Writing

These rules will stand you in good stead in most fiction or non-fiction writing. Exceptions pertain in particular fields: scientific papers demand the passive voice, for example.

You may groan at the familiarity of certain examples, but they show up repeatedly in the work of skilled professional writers, and so bear repeated hammering.

You’ll note that I advise writers to take these steps during revision. Stopping your first draft to wrestle with sentence structure kills momentum and may plunge you into the chill waters of self-doubt and frustration. Tackle this stuff later, when spotting and fixing errors fosters a sense of accomplishment. Eventually you’ll internalize these tricks and instinctively perform them during the writing phase.

Passive Voice

Avoid the passive voice, in which you obscure the object of an action by turning it into the subject of the sentence.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed by mi-go.

By de-emphasizing the person, force, thing or shambling horror, performing the action, you weaken your sentence’s impact.

If you’re writing a business press release or apologizing for a politician, you may omit the real subject of the sentence entirely:

Mistakes were made.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed.

Here you’re fudging on purpose, removing culpability and attributing the action to some unnamed force. You mi-go apologist, you!

When revising your manuscript, and you see any variation of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle, reconfigure it.

Mi-go destroyed the Congressman’s sanity.

I made mistakes.

As with any general writing tip, you may find specific reason to violate this dictum. Dialogue justifies all manner of prose sins. Perhaps mi-go always speak in the passive. I wouldn’t put it past them. The overall point remains—only do this when you can justify it.

Weak Verbs

Here’s an issue I used to conflate with passive voice before I started reviewing other people’s manuscripts and got corrected on it. When reviewing your manuscript, look for instances of the verb “to be” and its variations—“is,” “are”, “was” and “am.” Most sentences pair these with an additional verb.

The sheepbots are grazing on the hill.

The vampire was sucking her blood.

Wherever you can do so without weirdly contorting your sentence’s rhythm or syntax, reconfigure to drop the “to be” and rely entirely on the more vivid paired verb.

The sheepbots grazed on the hill.

The vampire sucked her blood.

You may be using “to be” to indicate timing—it suggests an ongoing action, rather than one that has already completed itself. Do this only when absolutely necessary—often the exact sequence of events proves less important than the stronger punch of the single action verb.

Over-reliance on “to be” becomes a special temptation when writing in the abstract mode found in the essay, or in rules text.

The second edition is better organized than the first.

Use of weak verbs is a sign of a beginning writer.

This rule is the key to GUMSHOE.

By replacing instances of “to be” whenever possible, you’ll accumulate a repertoire of stronger, more precise substitute verbs.

We reorganized this edition for superior ease of reference.

Use of weak verbs reveals the hand of the beginning writer.

To understand GUMSHOE, absorb this key rule.

Paring “of the”

Sentences including the word pairing “of the” can often be tightened by replacing them with an apostrophe.

He hires the crew to repatriate the mantle of the king.

Becomes:

He hires the crew to repatriate the king’s mantle.

Consider this issue wherever it appears, but don’t treat it as an iron-clad rule. You may want to leave an “of the” as is:

  •  for rhythm
  •  to maintain formality
  •  when emulating an older style
  •  to preserve thought order by ensuring that a sentence ends on a particular clause.

Sometimes the apostrophe version strikes the reading ear as jarringly direct.

 

Roleplaying Syntax

The following issues prose issues apply specifically (or at least particularly) to the roleplaying form.

Deprecation of the “will”

Though often mentioned, this issue continues to bedevil scenarios, which are written in a strange conditional future tense. In a sentence describing an action which a PC or GMC may or may not take, you may find yourself reflexively inserting the word “will”:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny will burn the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants will scramble for the hidden exit.

You can do yourself, and your editors, no better favor than to train yourself out of this habit. In this construction, “will” is totally unnecessary, and thus deadens the sentence’s impact:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny burns the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants scramble for the hidden exit.

Plurals Are Pluralistic

In the future hypothetical voice of roleplaying writing you often find yourself constructing sentences around players and/or their characters whose genders are unknown to you. More inconveniently still,   grammar predates feminism, rendering all attempts at gender inclusivity awkward in one way or another.

GUMSHOE uses the conceit that the hypothetical unknown GM is female and the players male. As a side benefit, this sometimes clarifies sentences featuring multiple pronouns.

Even better, when you can, turn the subject plural to avoiding assuming gender for your hypothetical subject.

The character can leave his pistol at the door, or leave it on the ship.

Becomes:

Characters can leave their pistols at the door, or leave them on the ship.

Next month: We move beyond prose issues to navigate you past scenario design pitfalls, general and GUMSHOE.


8 Responses to “Five Keys to Punchier Prose”

  1. [...] Pelgrane Press Ltd » Blog Archive » Five Keys to Punchier Prose By Robin D. Laws. Although I'm not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I've been able to se… [...]

  2. Excellent stuff, and very timely for me.

    I hadn’t considered the difference between passive voice and weak verbs, but I shall guard against it from now on. The deprecation of will is also a problem I need to work on.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Leslie says:

    I’ll be keeping these tips close at hand while revising my DRYH hack.

  4. Lou Prosperi says:

    Good stuff, Robin.

    I think the most useful tip is to “take these steps during revision”. It’s very easy to get caught up in trying to write perfectly (or as close to as possible) from the get go.

  5. Steve says:

    “or leave them on the ship” should not follow a comma.

  6. WiseWolf says:

    Great stuff, Mr. Laws. As always.

  7. Josh W says:

    Those examples with conditional present tense are really odd, but I can imagine them working in the context of a scenario book.

    Which is sort of cool actually, as the only other situation I can imagine that making sense is in programming pseudocode or descriptions of chemistry; “when combined with a strong acid, this liquid produces a blue gas”

    I wonder if that kind of tense is unique to hypothetical or logical language, particularly where interactivity is involved..

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