Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Earth to Major Limp Pen: A Brief Primer of Critical Prose Terms

Category: Life

Earth to Major Limp Pen

There are thousands of book, articles, Internet sites and opinions on what process is required to develop commercial grade prose. The welter of these materials can drown an aspiring author in a tsunami of information.

I have spent years learning the terms, tools and self-editing skills needed to craft acceptable prose. The advanced editing of a text is far beyond the scope of this article, and to be frank, I don’t want to work that hard writing about something so well documented.

I have more pressing things to work on–how to say tentacle seven different ways in a short story, for instance.

The new writer faces incredible hurdles in order to achieve publication. Editors reject work with little or no explanation. The primary reason they do this is their workday never ends. Far into the late hours, the editor of a publishing house is still working, plowing through a pile of manuscripts on the nightstand. Their lack of supportive feedback has nothing to do with the quality of their philanthropic leanings, and everything to do with time.

They just don’t have it.

This naked fact means that as a writer, you have to do your job well enough to make it off that nightstand. Lack of presentation, polish and originality will land your sweat and tears in the round file–a polite euphemism for the trashcan.

I have met so many writers in workshops, critique circles, website communities and in person that are infected with a strange and juvenile attitude distortion. There are repellent sub-varieties of this attitude, but the common traits of it are unmistakable.

Their frame of mind goes something like this:

‘I am a creative genius. My lumpy prose, tedious subject matter, myopic descriptions, gross adverbs, withered cliches and appalling grammar should be published, because I wrote it.’

Earth to Major Limp Pen, reality check!

In the writing world, professional presentation and original products are king. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life blackmailing ego strokes from your poor family and unfortunate friends, without the validation of publication and and a paycheck, you better learn the basics.

Let’s look at just a few of the critical terms you’ll need to understand in order to begin crafting prose into something acceptable for human consumption.


An outline is a writing tool that some writers use to keep themselves on track. It involves creating a skeletal structure for your story or article. It can help you stay on course. There are multitudes of outline templates on the Internet, for every kind of writing project. They vary in style depending on what your writing about.

First Draft:

This refers to your first attempt to write something. This is when you allow your words to pour onto the page. This is my favorite time, primarily because I don’t have to clean up the mess yet. The only drawback is the less you know about the basic rules for creating good prose, the bigger mess you will make. The hours spent poring over the text later is the most compelling argument for self-education.

Don’t bother correcting anything until your first draft is done. Trust me when I say you will re-visit it after the first copy ad nauseam, at least until you become better versed in self-editing.

Just let yourself go in this phase; no one has to see it until your ready.


Revision literally means to “see again.” It is a process meant to address fundamental structural and content problems in your work. In order to gain a useful critical perspective of your own work, put the piece away for a time. Enough time needs to pass that you can sit back and read it with a detached mind.

Second Draft:

This is what you produce after the tedious process of revision. The errors you must address in this second copy are numerous and time consuming. Inconsistent POV (point of view), ineffectual plot structure, poor clarity, inconsistent tone and texture, alliterations, adverbs, and clichés–all these issues can infest the bedrock of your prose, threatening the foundations.

Without this vital process, your prose will reek like a zombie in a suntan booth.


A hook usually begins in the first paragraph. It refers to the method you use to grab your readers attention in a way that makes them forget about everything outside of what they are reading. A good hook can land you new readers and maybe even a fan. A great hook can earn you immortality and a place in common language.

For example the opening line of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens, which reads ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is line recognized universally as a stellar hook.

This is a critical opening maneuver that can mean the difference between success and failure. If no one keeps reading, your story is worthless.

Here are two different opening paragraphs for a story. Which one makes you want to read on?

1. Betty bent over the trashcan, groaning at the pain in her back. Her little snookums was due home from school any minute, and she couldn’t seem to get the bag out of the can. She sobbed wildly and tanked at the plastic again, but it tore, spilling coffee grounds all over the linoleum.

2. Considering all the obnoxious byproducts of humankind,you’d think one of the worst could have been discarded for the garbage it was centuries ago. I glared at the tin in my hand, stamped on both sides with the legend ‘Spam’. I sighed and tossed the ration to Tetze, who caught it with his deft mouth tentacles.


A cliché is a term or expression used so often it fails to engage a reader in an effective manner. These terms can sneak in, like sewer rats, regardless of how much you know about them. This is because we use them so much in everyday conversation. They are hard to spot–we are so accustomed to hearing them. Clichés weaken the impact of what you’re trying to relate, rob your pockets by wasting time, and bore your audience. They toss up road signs that scream of laziness, ignorance, or just plain incompetence. That is not an impression I want to make, how about you?

Here are a few examples of the most common.

1. black as coal
2. tired as a dog
3. blast from the past
4. born yesterday
5. all thumbs
6. better than ever
7. bottom line

The best cure for a cliché is to replace it with a decent metaphor. The art of the metaphor is a specific advanced form of writing. I recommend you yet again to other sources to explore its many facets.


A device that likens one thing to another. There are many breeds of metaphor, identified by how they are employed in the text. The skilled use of metaphors can bring a story to life, paint fantastic mental pictures in the mind of your readers, and offer a chance for interactive participation in your story. It engages the imagination of your audience, stimulating thought and emotions.

Here are two examples of the metaphor for your consideration:

1.The mystery chained her mind.
2.Trepidation drilled her heart.

A creative or clever metaphor can induce a powerful response. Skilled use of this device can lift your writing into the realm of literary genius, and create an experience so compelling for your audience that the story will come to life in a spectacular immersive way. This is essential for your success.

Active and Passive Voice:

A sentence demonstrates active voice if the subject of a sentence performs an action specified by a verb. For example, this sentence demonstrates active voice:

1. The tiger mauled the man.

In a sentence using passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed by the verb. For example:

2. The man was mauled by the tiger.

There are very few instances that passive voice is effective. The use of active voice provides clarity, and concise linear events that don’t confuse your reader, or cause them to stop reading to try and figure out what they just read. It is important to grasp the difference if you are not familiar with the terms. Passive voice is another flaw that will result in an editor scrapping your work before venturing past the first couple pages, if it is glaring enough.


This term refers to the use of slang or everyday language in your prose. A skilled author can use it to set a tone, establish the texture of a different culture, and many other subtle uses. There is a danger in using colloquial terms–they are usually region specific. If you employ them in your writing, you run the risk that a reader who does not live in your area will not be able to understand what the slang means.

This will not help your writing age well, and it will shrink your potential audience (and profit margin). Everyday language changes over time. Anyone who remembers reading Shakespeare for the first time should grasp this concept at once. Without a grasp of the colloquial language of the period, it is hard to understand the work.


Proofreading is the last stage of the editing process. This is the time to correct punctuation, spelling, grammar, typing errors and other small problems. An extra pair of eyes can reduce the tedium of this polishing period. There are many methods to ease the chore of this final effort. Reading the text aloud is one of the best. There are a number of quality workshop and writing circles if you look for them, where you can exchange critiques and find help from others.

These terms are only a tiny portion of the things you will need to understand in order to become an author worth reading. Still, to risk an old cliché I will close with the maxim “You must crawl before you can walk.”

Writing is a craft and a discipline. There are no shortcuts, only hard work, and practice will enable you to improve. That and the blind persistence of an oar slave will win the day.

Good luck on your journey of creativity and communication. May your prose come alive and live in the minds and hearts of your audience forever.

Chalice Divine – The Twilight Fabulist

Posted by Chalice_Divine on 01/31 at 03:00 AM | Permalink
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