Strengthen Prose With Judicious Words

I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, about how you can self-edit yourself into more vibrant prose.

Strengthen Prose With Judicious Words

Be Selective in Word Choices for Vibrant Writing and Strong Writer’s Voice

A writer can bump their writing up to the next level and make it sparkle by being careful and thoughtful about each word used.

Many times, editors will say that the writer’s “voice” in a manuscript is what catches their attention.

Voice is hard to define, even for industry professionals. It’s that intangible something that makes a string of prose unique to the author, and a strong voice is what will make an editor interested in a manuscript.

But one thing common to all writers who have strong writers’ voices is that their word choices and phrasing are very unique and vibrant.

Whether you have discovered and developed your writer’s voice or not, here are a few tips for polishing your writing to make it stand out more with strong words and brilliant prose.

Use Strong Verbs

In general, a sentence with “was XX-ing” in it is a weaker sentence than one with a strong action verb.

He was walking down the boulevard.
He marched down the boulevard.
He stumbled down the boulevard.
He strutted down the boulevard.
He slunk down the boulevard.

You shouldn’t be indiscriminate and just replace every single -ing verb in your manuscript, because the use of -ing verbs is important. Sometimes a strong action verb just wouldn’t make sense in the sentence.

But a good trick is to do a “Find” and “Replace” in your computer word processing program and “Find” every “was” and/or “ing.” Then “Replace” them with a strong action verb.

Use Emotional Words

There are certain words that invoke a strong emotion in readers’ thoughts and visceral reactions. Take advantage of those words when revising your prose.

The lemon tasted sour.
She bit into the lemon slice, and the juices tingled down her tongue and across her teeth to bite into her cheeks.

“lemon slice” is a visual picture
“tongue” “teeth” “cheeks” induces the reader to think of their own mouth
“tingled” and “bite” stimulates a visceral reaction in the reader

Add As Many Power Words As Possible

Be very exacting when looking at your sentences—go through them with a slow, deliberate eye. Weigh each phrase, each word, and see if you can think of a stronger verb, a more emotional descriptor, a more specific noun.

A good rule of thumb is to try to add some sort of “power word” to every single sentence. Do not leave a sentence unrevised unless it already has at least one “power word” in it, and you can’t think of any better words to replace what’s already there.

Do This Only In Revisions

While these tips are good for when you’re revising your manuscript, it’s best not to even think about these when you’re writing fresh prose.

When you’re writing, you’re in creative right-brain mode and should just let the words flow out of you. Being in full creative right-brain mode is usually best for when you’re “in the zone” in terms of your writing.

Any type of self-editing is a left-brain activity and will pull you out of your creative right-brain mode, and out of “the zone.” So save the revision tips for later.


  1. As usual, excellent advice! Thank you!

  2. i agree...great advice. especially about left-brain, right-brain activity. i read your post on rachelle's blog about learning the rules as much as you can. since i read your fiction-writing history a while back, i have been trying to soak up some of those "tools" you mentioned. randy's "snowflake" method article is really amazing! and i just joined a critique group through i suppose things are falling into place! anyway...thanks for the encouragement. this unpubbed author appreciates it!

  3. Thanks, Jody and Jeannie! I'm glad my article was helpful!

    Jeannie, best of luck with that critique group! It'll really help a lot. Also, remember that you can try out different groups to find a group dynamic that works for you!


  4. camy - not to take up your blog, but what do you mean try out different groups? within ACFW? i ask b/c i'm not so sure the dynamic of my group is right for what i'm writing about (chick lit style). we're just now sending in submissions to be critiqued, so i thought i'd see how that goes...but did you mean join another assoication (like christian writers' guild?) to get in a critique group? i'd appreciate that feedback. :)

  5. Jeannie, I mean within ACFW. ACFW will let you switch critique groups if you find the one you're assigned to doesn't seem to fit you well, for whatever reason. Just don't feel you're stuck with your current group if it's not meeting your needs. Everyone understands that sometimes it takes a while to find a group that fits you.


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