The title’s misleading here, since I’m going to talk about the why before the how. You know this site by now; sometimes I lie a little.
What is “Faster Prose”?
“Fast prose” is writing that can be read quickly and easily. We tend to think of reading speed as being governed by content: complicated topics with esoteric vocabulary and terminology take longer to read about than common, everyday subjects. To some extent that’s true. But there’s plenty of “light reading” works out there — genre fiction, magazine articles, strictly for-entertainment stuff — that plods along, and it’s not the subject matter doing it. Word choice and language usage make prose faster or slower.
Is Fast Prose Good?
This is writing, folks; there are no absolutes. Prose that moves along quickly and smoothly from one point to the next, whether it’s plot events or arguments in an op-ed, is going to be more comfortable for people to read. Most people like comfort; more importantly, most people recommend things that made them feel comfortable to their friends. If you’re going for mass-marketability, be thinking speedy writing. If you know you’re writing for a lit-crit crowd that likes to puzzle things out and then pat themselves on the back for catching the trick, maybe not so much. If you’re writing for the internet God have mercy on your soul.
How Do You Speed Prose Up?
Cut Extra Words
Anyone with a journalism background already knows this one. Adverbs are the first to go. Any kind of conditional modifier is gone too — all those words we like to hedge our bets with, “mostly,” “often,” “perhaps,” and so on, toast. We like to put them in our writing because it makes us sound reasonable; reason takes time and mental energy. If you want faster prose you shortcut past all that.
This post is an unapologetic example, and a far cry from my usual wordiness. Look for commas. Half the sentences with commas can probably be two short sentences. Another quarter can be one sentence — just eliminate the weaker clause. Brains understand short sentences immediately and move on. Longer sentences slow the whole paragraph down.
Use Active Verbs
This is good writing advice in general, but avoid any passive voice. Sentences with multiple verbs take longer to process. One action word, one idea. Multiple action words, multiple ideas. Brains are lousy multitaskers. Make it easy on them.
Break Up Paragraphs
Internet writers hark, but everyone else can use this too. White space is a breath of cool air on a poor, tired brain’s face. It feels like a pause without actually making the whole “reading your words” process stop. And the goal is to keep the process moving as efficiently as possible.
Yeah, But What if It’s Boring?
Short, rapid-fire sentences start to sound the same after a while. In a three-page magazine article that’s not too crippling. In a novel it’s a big problem.
To save some space, break the old “show don’t tell” rule once in a while. You’re allowed to intrude as a narrator. “James wished he hadn’t done it” tells us the same thing as “James poured a whiskey neat, hardly even aware that he was cursing his foolishness under his breath,” and it’s quicker. It’s also less descriptive — follow it with one or two more, equally-short sentences to convey the same weight. “James wished he hadn’t done it. The world seemed a smaller and grayer place, suddenly. Even whiskey gave him little joy.“ reads much faster that the previous example — even though it’s several words longer.
Fast but interesting prose is a balancing act. One short sentence describes something broad that drives the plot. The next contains something tightly-focused that puts the reader right into the scene. And so ad infinitum — literally switching every other sentence gets boring, obviously, but seek a general balance. Blandly factual sentences aren’t always a writing no-no. Just keep them very short and surround them with descriptive — and equally short — sentences.
Was this helpful or interesting? Should I go back to writing about dinosaurs and alcoholism? Leave a comment with your thoughts!