Getting the Words Right…or as Close to Right as Possible

Today, I picked up The House of Green Turf, by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), for a re-read. Peters is probably best known for her Brother Cadfaelmysteries, but I actually like her earlier Inspector Felse books better. I was tired and a bit cranky, and wanted something to just sink into. I admit it, I’m a sucker for British mysteries, especially the older ones like the Felse books, where the author seemed to take time, well-spent time, with the words.

Here’s a passage where Maggie Tressider has just found out that she is not–as she has thought for the past week–morally responsible for the death of a man and–for the past night and day–a woman as well. Look at this. Or better…listen:

A huge, clean, boisterous wind was blowing through her mind and spirit, blowing the sickness from her soul and the corruption from her will. She closed the door of her room, and sat down before the mirror to stare into her own face, and saw it marvellously changed. She felt cold and pure, scoured into her ultimate clarity, like a Himalayan peak honed diamond-clear and diamond-hard by the withering winds of the heights. She saw herself bright and positive and brave in the mirror, and wondered where this self of hers had been hiding for so long.

Yes, it’s an older style. More telling than we tend to accept today. It’s longer, less active. But it’s lovely. Because Peters knew how to take words and shape them into something beautiful.

I don’t think we’re less concerned with this part of the craft today. The best of the books being published do just what Peters has done, put words on the page so that they sound, feel, like poetry, even when they keep to the standard sentence and paragraph structure of prose. I think, though, that as writers, we worry so much about getting the plot tight and the characters extreme and the pacing at top-speed, that we sometimes let the words slip.

Words are hard. Yes, everything is, but we can learn much of our writing craft–through workshops and books and, yes, critique groups. Getting the art of the sentence down is a bit tougher, I think. And I very much believe that grammar and clarity of words is a very separate skill from story telling or world-building. If we didn’t learn this stuff when we were young, very young, it’s hard to pick it up now, as adults trying to turn our imaginations and our ideas into books.

What can we do? Well, I do think there are a few things that help.

  • Don’t worry about the language and sentences in the early drafts. Every time you sweat an apostrophe (its or it’s gets me every time!), you block the creative flow that is letting you get your story on the page. Push through those questions, those worries, and write.
  • Ask your critique group to lay off the grammar for a while, too. Receiving feedback is challenging enough; if someone’s red pen has bled punctuation all over your scene, you’re not going to be able to get past it to the bigger issues facing you and your project. If they see a writing problem or two happening time and time again, they can let you know about it, sure. Learning where your weaknesses are can only help your prose get stronger. But don’t let these be the focus of early feedback.
  • Read, read, read.  And when you find a book that captures you with its prose, read it again. These are the books that are so easy to get lost in, to not see how the author is doing what they do to us. Take the time to read for something other than story, other than character, to look at the playing the writer does with the words and the sentences. To get to the structure behind the beauty. Because, yes, every sentence is built on structure.
  • Read your own work, too. Read your scenes aloud and let your ear actually hear the writing. Keep a pencil handy and scribble down alternate words, different phrasings, stronger verbs and nouns.
  • If you really don’t feel comfortable with your sentence-level, grammar-type skills, consider taking a class. Yes, there are many books about “style,” including The Elements of Style, but to really understand what makes a clear, evocative sentence, you need to be writing them. And if you take a writing class that isn’t about fiction, you’ll feel less pressured and more able to learn the mechanics.
  • Find someone to read your final drafts. If you’re not confident about your prose, ask for help. If someone in your critique group is great at this, yay–buy them chocolate! If not, hunt around. You may have a friend or a relative or a co-worker who just loves grammer, revels in it. Ask them for a favor (and, yes, buy more chocolate). They may even be able to work with a bit more distance than one of your critique partner, and focus solely on your prose.

This sounds, I’m afraid, like all I’m pushing for is that we get those sentences right, that we write clearly and effectively. No, I want more than that. I want, “a Himalayan peak honed diamond-clear and diamond-hard.”  The thing is, just like story is built on structure, so beautiful prose is built on grammar rules and sentence clarity.

And we can produce those fast plots and edgy characters along with beautiful prose. 🙂


  1. steve p says:

    I like to play with words and their sounds, aliteration, etc. This seems easier with light material, but it can help sometimes with serious content too. Like music signals mood or pending doom in the sound track. Words can carry their owm side track. I started a blog recently that is a playground for light content wordplay. After the most recent post a friend wrote that he wasn’t sure who I was making fun of. That was the whole point. It was like a Rorschach test for the reader. That was part of the joke.


  2. Shawna says:

    I think this is excellent advice and a timely reminder. One of the reasons I love to write is my fascination with words. A dozen words, in the right order, can paint a picture in a reader’s head, or create an emotion… it’s magic.

    I’m guilty of concentrating on the world-building and story arc instead of the parts of the whole. I used to spend hours on a sentence until it was just right, and then I learned the word deadline.

    You’re right, it is an art. Grammar is the foundation of prose, punctuation gives it rhythm but the words make it sing.

    Thank you for the reminder.


  3. P. J. Hoover says:

    I’m so with you on early drafts!
    but wait – I have to get the words right, too????


  4. Kristen A says:

    This is clearly a weakness for me. I am captain of the short sentence structure. It is truly an art to be able to form long, meandering sentences that work.

    I loved the suggestions Becky.


    • beckylevine says:

      Kristen, long and meandering isn’t always the best (just cause I quoted one!!). I have a real love for those short sentences that get it JUST right. See Dana Stabenow and SJ Rozan if you want to see perfection in that area!


  5. beth says:

    You know, I think in the past I would have read this and though, eh. Words don’t matter that much, not compared to plot.

    But after reading enough books that were just beautiful (Hunger Games, Adoration of Jenna Fox), I tried to focus more on the cadences of language, and my writing is SO much better now.


    • beckylevine says:

      Beth, I loved Jenna Fox so much–yes, the words are great there! But that plot is pretty amazing, too. I think all the pieces are really important (darn it!). 🙂


  6. Vivian says:

    I am a stickler for capturing the right words in my manuscripts. Sometimes I wish I could just write away and focus on the words later, but the detail of the word helps me pace and create the right emotion.

    Nice post!


    • beckylevine says:

      I agree. There’s something about words that help with the rhythm and the voice. It hurts to get rid of them, but if they’re not the right ones, they have to go–and I try to keep hold of the pleasure of the writing, not just the result! 🙂


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