Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on... "Muscular Prose"

The other day I was reading a blog post where someone was listing their goals for their query. One of the goals on her check list was "muscular prose" with the addendum "tightness at the sentence level". When I read that, something clicked in my mind and I began to contemplate the phenomenon of muscular prose.

The idea of "muscular prose" or "lean prose" as it is sometimes called became popular with Hemingway. According to this article, Hemingway was given four rules to follow during his time as a reporter for the Kansas City Star:

1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous English.
4. Be positive, not negative.

The article quotes Hemingway as saying of this writing method:

"Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them."

 ...not quite what I meant by muscular prose.
 And now I'm going to explain why I think it's a BAD THING that the idea of muscular prose has become so entrenched in the publishing industry as the "right way" to write everything.

All writers are different.

With all due respect to Hemingway, his statement above is naive. He got lucky. He was given a set of rules and for some reason they worked for him and he was successful. But that's the exception that tests the rule.

All writers are skilled in different ways, see things in different ways, think in different ways. And as a result of being different people  with different gifts, all writers choose different words, different sentence lengths and structure, different ways of communicating based on what feels natural to them. This is called "voice". Each writer has their own voice, which simply means "how a particular author writes".

There is no one way to do anything that works for all writers. There is only the way that comes naturally to you, the way that works for you. And the more you try to write like someone else instead of yourself, the more you will fail. That's why all those people who promote fool proof methods for writing great books are scam artists.

For instance, the author of the article I linked to above attempts to compose two examples demonstrating "muscular prose" versus more wordy prose. The results are interesting to say the least. Here's his "positive" example of muscular prose:

The sun rose over the sea. It was a crisp, breezy dawn. I harbored my hangover near the pigpen.
 Now, I don't know about you, but my impression of these three sentences is less than stellar. "I harbored my hangover near the pigpen" is pretty good. It's clear, to the point and even has alliteration. (Everything is more awesome with alliteration.) However, "The sun rose over the sea" and "it was a crisp, breezy dawn" are sentences that have no life in them. They fall completely flat. In fact, they're so forgettable that by the time I got to "I harbored my hangover near the pigpen" I'd already forgotten what the setting is and I actually had to read it a few times before I realized how clever the use of the verb "harbor" was since he's near the sea. Overall, this writer is really trying to provide a good example of Hemingway's style and utterly fails. Because it's obviously not coming naturally to him.

Onto the second example, of "verbose" prose.

The late summer sun peeped over the liquid horizon, decided the coast was clear and stretched into the morning sky. I watched it emerge and glaze the rippling sea with jaundiced quicksilver. It was a crisp clear morning, the dewy grass soft underfoot, providing pleasing moisture to counter my desiccated innards. A brisk sea breeze brushed foam from choppy wavelets, blowing salt-scented air overland to season the stench from a nearby swine-pen and thus compound my gastrointestinal in-brawling.
First, the writer is clearly trying too hard and ends up making this an obviously far too extreme example.(ANY writing style taken to an extreme is bad, unless you're writing comedy.) That said, the author can't help, even in his attempt to write badly, coming up with some really lively metaphors and imagery. I LOVE the sentence "The late summer sun peeped over the liquid horizon, decided the coast was clear and stretched into the morning sky." It's so vivid and the words are strong. Here I can really see what he's describing instead of my mind just glazing over it in boredom. "Dessicated innards" and "gastrointestinal in-brawling" are fantastic little descriptions as well. The writer clearly has a gift for it and I hate the thought of him being convinced that he needs to write the way he did in the first example to be good.

The point is that how you write depends on who you are and you should never write the way someone else does if it doesn't fit your talents. A writer who attempts to use Hemingway's style against his own nature will aim for prose that looks like this:


but end up with prose that looks like this:

You don't want that do you?


  1. I found your blog through a comment you left on Sarah, With Joy's blog (I think that's the name, I always screw it up) which was going against the grain to say the least. I admired it (I love contrarians) so I came over here and I liked this post as well.

    I like Papa as much as the next person but I very much agree with your argument that he isn't a one size fits all style.

    The only thing I would say is that the spirit of Hemingway's advice is solid. I always took from it that I should be polishing things down the smallest nub that still gets across my meaning. Sometimes it's a lot of words, sometimes not. Either way I'll take voluptuous over pointy any day.

  2. ...Wow, that girl is scary thin. CHEESEBURGER, STAT!

    You make a good point about different things working for different writers. Some of my habits probably seem insane to others.

    I also love the term "use vigorous English". I feel like I should engage in serious exercise before attempting to write.

    Also, swing by my blog! I'm inviting you to take part in a meme ;)

  3. Yeah, get that girl a Twinkie!
    I use short sentences now and then, and especially for action scenes, but not all the time. And vigorous English? Don't think I qualify...

  4. Voice and style are so similarly linked, it can't possibly be a one-size-fits-all world. Individuality is the lifeblood of creativity.

  5. Love the Shakespeare pic!
    And while Hemingway is great, wouldn't it be boring if everything read like his work?

  6. Himbokal, I have to strongly disagree with the idea of "polishing down to the smallest nub". In fact, I think that more often than not "polishing" in general is a fool's errand and leaves little room for beauty.

    Miss Cole, exercise before writing sounds like a good idea!

    Alex, I find that as a reader I prefer a mixture of long and short sentences that create a pleasant rhythm.

    L.G., that's why this push by the publishing industry to have everyone write the same way (no doubt to make selling books easier) scares me.

    Jen, I have to say that if everyone wrote like Hemingway I would despair because his style just doesn't do it for me.

  7. Okay, fair enough. Question: When you write your blog do you edit? Isn't editing "polishing" to some extent? Do you write one draft and leave it untouched for fear of losing beauty?

    Let's say you asked me to build you a house. I point at a tree and say, "Done." Are you satisfied with your house? I point out beautiful leaves running the gamut of green; the idiosyncratic angles of the limbs that cut the sunlight vertically and horizontally simultaneously; the accordion texture of the bark.

    Do you say, "Perfect, here's my down payment." Or do you say, "Where's the bathroom and what happens if it rains?"

    If I'm a quarterback, I wouldn't throw every pass to one receiver for fear of missing a spectacular catch.

    And as I said, the smallest nub that gets across your meaning. In your example it would be the smallest nub that communicates beauty.

  8. I want Scarlet Johansson writing! I'm a fan of the more wordy and flowery writing style myself, mainly because I can't help myself from writing long blocks of text, hehe. I can see where muscular prose would come in handy, but I completely agree that it won't work for everyone.

  9. Himbokal, there does seem to be a tendency among writers in the blogosphere to talk about editing and polishing as if they are the same thing but I disagree. "Editing" is fixing mistakes such as spelling, grammar, fact checking, adjusting for clarity (for instance if your Beta tells you "I have no idea what what happening in the that paragraph." That's a mistake and you fix it) and that type of thing. "Polishing" is when you put on your critical brain and you go back and line by line second guessing all of your word choices usually for no other reason than you've been told you should.

    My strong opinion (as if any of my opinions are not strong) is that whether or not your manuscript is good enough to publish, "polishing" it WILL NOT make it better. It will only make it worse. Your critical brain couldn't write a good story to save its life and you should NEVER listen to it. Only write from your creative brain.

    Your analogy of the tree and the house is... faulty, to say the least. Trees are construction material for houses. If you pointed to one and said "there's your house" I would suggest you seek a mental health professional. In the same way, words are the construction material for novels. If you pointed to a collection of random words and said "this is my novel" I would do the same. ;)

    Jamie, and that's another point. Just as not all writing styles work for every author, not all readers enjoy the same styles. Acting like ever reader likes the same things is... insulting. I'm not entirely sure who I want my writing to look like... Sophia Loren (in her prime) perhaps?

  10. I'm not sure if that was meant to be a shot at bloggers but a quick google search of "polishing the same as editing" came up with 10.1 million hits. Classes at universities (UCLA, UW-Madison, UNC), writing seminars, books, articles, Thesaurus.com, all seem to be using the words interchangeably. Good luck on the crusade. You've got a tough row to hoe.

    You seem to be arguing against the point of your post. Namely, my way of writing is to go through and second guess everything and then I find other people to second guess my word choices. And the I second guess those (is that polishing cubed?). To this you say: Thou shalt NEVER do this. Thine work shall ALWAYS be worse. I've got some awful first drafts I'll be happy to send you that will prove this wrong.

    The idea that one wouldn't go back and critically look at one's own writing presumes an infallible creative instinct that I don't have.

    And saying "editing for clarity" is not writing with your critical brain seems awfully slippery. If you are taking into account a reader then somewhere in your head you are thinking, will this make sense to someone else? That's your critical brain rearing its perpetually wrong head.

  11. Nope, not meant to be a shot at bloggers, just saying that the blogosphere is where I've observed this. Perhaps those of us who don't view "editing" as the same as "polishing" will ultimately start having to use different terminology. But my point is that the ideas are different. When I say editing I mean fixing mistakes. Fixing mistakes is good. I believe that every other kind of rewriting is playing with fire.

    I'm not saying that you have to agree with me. I'm clearly stating an opinion, as demonstrated by my use of the word opinion above. I'm not issuing commandments. But either way, I'm not arguing against my point. My point was that there's no "right" writing style. You're talking about rewriting, which is different than writing in that its inherently destructive. I do strongly believe that authors should stop destroying their words.

    And no, I'm not presuming any such thing. I didn't say that your first product will be good. (In fact, I explicitly said "whether or not your manuscript is good".) I'm saying that "polishing" or "revising" will make it WORSE than it was almost every time. Writers need to practice to get good and that means that the early things any authors writes will almost certainly not be publishable. But you can't make yourself better by destroying what you created.

    No, you misunderstood. I gave a clear example. If a BETA READER tells you that you wrote something completely confusing to the point that it makes the plot obscure then you should fix it because it is a mistake. It is the BETA that is reading it with a critical brain, not the author.

  12. Good post as usual. I tend to flop back and forth between the two, using whichever one suits the story best at the time, but I do lean toward the verbose more often. That might be because I'm re-reading "The Hobbit" and Tolkien's rubbing off on me...

  13. I think it's probably inevitable that you will have to use different terminology. Seems they are used interchangeably (with respect to writing).

    I understand you wanting to differentiate the two. I don't disagree that polishing and editing in the sense you are talking about is different. I just don't agree that re-writing is bad.

    Do you only read fiction that has never been re-written? How would you even know?

    How is the following not a commandment?

    "Your critical brain couldn't write a good story to save its life and you should NEVER listen to it. Only write from your creative brain."

    When I hear someone say you should NEVER do something or ONLY do something my immediate response is to argue. Nobody is that right about anything having to do with writing.

    I'm not sure where "good" came in here. I was arguing that my (and other writers) creative instincts are not infallible. Good or bad, they aren't infallible.

    Yes, I'm aware that it takes practice. When I practice, I re-write. I've definitely made myself better by destroying stuff I've created (if for no other reason my self esteem went up because I erased an embarrassingly poor story from existence). I look at it as practicing how to pick out what sucks.

    So the BETA reader is the only one qualified to think critically about your writing?

  14. Himbokal, I think we will just have to agree to disagree for now. Though sometime soon I will have a more in depth post about my views on rewriting. Perhaps you'll understand me better then. Still, I'm sure most writers will continue to disagree with me simply because rewriting has been so ingrained in them. But to answer just a couple of your questions...

    No, of course I don't only read books that have not been rewritten. That would be silly. Just because I think it's a bad idea doesn't mean I'm going to boycott people for doing it. Do I come across as that intolerant?

    It's not a command because I clearly stated that it was an opinion. If I had to continually use wishy washy language when expressing my opinions I'd end up hating myself. :P

  15. Will, thanks. Tolkien rubbing off on you can never hurt, in my opinion. ;)

  16. Okay. I'm not even sure that I disagree with you. I just like a good argument and you gave me something to think about. Plus, like I said, I like when people go against the grain, even when it's my grain.

    You didn't come across as that intolerant. I'd say Putin rather than Stalin (kidding).

    Either way you argued yourself into a follower. Great blog (I ended up reading about half the posts today). Thanks for writing it.

  17. I think there should be sentence variation. Hemingway used long sentences, too. No one seems to remember that.

  18. Have you ever read/seen "Cold Comfort Farm"? The MC is an aspiring writer and she's always talking about the "golden orb" or the "rude branches of the hawthorne". It's a beautiful satire of voluptuous writing.

  19. M Pax, that's good to know! I have to admit I've never actually read Hemingway.

    Megan, I have not heard of that. But I like people who talk that way. They're more interesting. :)

  20. That 2nd photo scares me. I don't want to write like that!

    I did have to get better about combining sentences. But I don't want a bunch of short, punchy ones either. If you read those first 3 aloud, it's staccato.

  21. Geez, I meant to comment here way back. It's like teaching students Strunk & White, which is not exactly Ew girl, but certainly a lean figure, short of bulimic. It's good to learn, but I hope that some writers at least voluptuous out to S.J. prose. Maybe even dressed in purple instead of white. Mmm...


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