How to elevate your prose

When you have something serious to say, lose the familiarity in your writing, raise the tone, and step out in high style.

One writerly luxury is that we can work in our pajamas. Our writing, too, oftentimes takes that familiar, across-the-kitchen-table voice readers relate to. Still, we know that even if we are dressed down, our manuscripts must be dressed up – fresh, clean, and well-formatted – when they hit the editor’s desk. At times, our language also needs to abandon the jeans-and-flannel feel for power suits and evening gowns. When we have something serious to say, we may want to elevate the tone. Such writing signals significance to readers. It demands: Pay attention!

For example, in his 1950 Nobel Award speech, William Faulkner wanted to offer some advice to young writers, particularly the one who might one day stand in his place. He might have said:

He mustn’t be afraid. He needs to remember that fear is the worst thing and to forget it. In his workplace, he should only remember those tried and true heartfelt truths. Without them, a story doesn’t have lasting power and will be forgotten. Writers need to remember qualities like love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, and sacrifice.

Instead, Faulkner elevated his tone:

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifices.

Which passage do you find more memorable? Which might be committed to memory for its elegant presentation of message?

Notice that the language in Faulkner’s version isn’t especially difficult. “Four-dollar words” are one option for elevating prose, but here complex sentence structures work magic instead, bearing readers gracefully along in a rhythmic wave of words. It is one long, but beautifully constructed, sentence. The qualities he wants to impress upon us are each separated with the word and, forcing us to slow down and consider them separately.

Such writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It is crafted; it takes time and practice and a good ear. Fortunately, there are ways to develop an elevated style so it’s there in our toolkit when we need it. In their book Style, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup offer many tips in a chapter called “Elegance.” The first is “balanced coordination,” the idea that one phrase might “[echo] another in sound, rhythm, structure, and meaning.” We see that in Faulkner’s passage:

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to
be afraid,

and teaching himself that, forget it forever,

leaving no room in his workshop

for anything but
the old verities and

truths of the heart,

the old universal truths lacking which any
story is ephemeral

and

doomed.

In addition to the coordinated, or parallel, phrases, consider the echo of teach and teaching, the sounds of forget and forever, and the way old universal truths ties into both previous phrases, old verities and truths of the heart. Those teach/teaching phrases also create a chiasmus, an old technique in which the second part is a grammatical reversal of the first. You can bet all this didn’t hit the page in draft one.

“How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its grace,” Williams and Bizup point out. They offer several ways to end sentences with grace. One is to end with a “weighty” word – not a preposition. Adverbs and adjectives are stronger, they point out, nouns stronger still, and nominalizations – those verbs and adjectives turned into nouns (i.e. nominalize becomes nominalization, attend becomes attention) are strongest of all. Perhaps this is why Faulkner ended his sentence with that string of concepts (nouns) that he wanted to impress upon us. Adding the word of just before the noun “quickens the rhythm,” Williams and Bizup say. Notice it in this sentence of Faulkner’s: “Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.

A series of parallel phrases can have a strong impact as well. Faulkner continues:

He writes not of love,

but of lust,

of defeats in which nobody
loses anything of value,

of victories

without hope,

and worst of all,

without pity or
compassion.

How much stronger it sounds to say it the way Faulkner did, rather than “not of love, but lust.” And notice the buildup in the remaining phrases: victories is “heavier” than defeats; with its two syllables, pity feels heavier than hope; and compassion (a nominalization) is heaviest of all.

An easy approach to creating more complex structures is to examine a sentence you’ve already written, asking yourself how you might extend the idea further with a modifier. The free modifier, a clause that comments on the previous verb, is quite common. For example, the opening sentence of this paragraph demonstrates the free modifier with the phrase asking yourself how you might extend the idea further, which illuminates how you might examine (the verb) in the sentence. Begin your free modifier with an -ing or an -ed word.

Similarly, a resumptive modifier reuses a key word (a noun, adjective, or verb), a word that enables the writer to resume the sentence after a comma. (Can you find the resumptive modifier in that sentence?) Williams and Bizup point out that the same modifier can also be achieved with the phrase one that, as in “A resumptive modifier repeats a key word (a noun, adjective, or verb), one that enables the writer to resume the sentence.”

A summative modifier, as its name suggests, uses a term to sum up the idea in the independent clause, a maneuver that is clarifying and graceful. The previous sentence does this by referring to this approach as a maneuver, allowing for a further comment.

Once it was common practice to learn writing by imitating the style of the masters. That’s not a bad exercise; it pushes you to extend your thoughts, creating structures and devices you might not ordinarily use. Look again at the previous Faulkner passage. Now look at this imitation, using a different subject:

We argue not with animosity,

but with love,

knowing that we cannot
afford to lose each other
in the battle

remembering that to
unify ourselves is
to accept our
common humanity,
to be strengthened in
our shared destiny.

Try finding an elegant passage from a writer you admire and use it as a model in your next piece. One day, your own words might be the elegant lines a novice writer studies with admiration.

 

Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults, including, including, “Cut the Fat” from the July 2017 issue of The Writer. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, Florida.