Crumpled-Paper

Most Common Writing Mistakes: Choppy Prose

A lean, lyrical style is an art form all its own. Just ask Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. But authors need to be aware of the difference between lean prose and choppy prose—and learn to avoid the latter.

Reading choppy prose is like driving on a washboard road. It might be ever so slightly exciting at first, but it quickly becomes irritating and exhausting. The constant jarring of incomplete thoughts and abrupt punctuation prevents readers from sinking into a story. You may be striving for simplicity, but sometimes that very lack of sophistication in sentence structure can end up confusing readers.

Three Causes of Choppy Prose

The root of choppy prose is almost always poor sentence construction. At the root of these bad constructions, we often find three culprits:

1. Run-ons

A run-on sentence is one in which two or more independent clauses are joined without proper conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” etc.) or punctuation (semi-colon). The result is a sentence that runs on and on. This might seem like it would produce an effect opposite to choppiness, but, in fact, its breathlessness hurries readers along and mutilates what might otherwise be an effective construction.

For example:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late, she ran down the platform, she screamed at the train to stop, she had to get on!

2. Fragments

A sentence fragment is the opposite of a run-on: an incomplete clause, lacking either subject (noun) or predicate (verb). The abruptness of the missing half creates a jerky style that can make the author look uneducated and create confusion for readers.

For example:

Ariel gave up and stopped short. Cried. So unfair. Now, what would happen to her? Doomed, of course. She sat down on her suitcase. Because she had no more strength left in her legs. Maybe the next train? Or when someone took pity on her.

3. Semi-colons

The semi-colon is one of the most elegant of all punctuation marks. But it’s also one of the easiest to misuse. Authors can unintentionally use semi-colons to chop their prose to bits. Most of the time, this happens when one of the clauses the semi-colon is dividing fails to be independent (in essence, becoming a fragment).

For example:

A kind man in a fedora stopped beside Ariel; to see if he could help. She sniffed; looked up. This was her lucky day after all; or maybe just miraculous.

How to Fix Your Choppy Prose

Once you’ve identified what’s hacking up your prose, the remedy is simple enough: ruthlessly excise the offenders! Separate your run-ons into correct clauses or sentences of their own, smooth out your fragments with proper punctuation, and either remove the semi-colons or build independent clauses on either side of them.

For Example:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

The prose here is still pretty lean, but now it also flows more intuitively and clarifies the scene for readers rather than confusing them with nebulous half sentences. Cleaning up your choppy prose is as easy as that!

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever struggle with choppy prose?

Most Common Writing Mistakes: Choppy Prose

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I struggle with run-ons. I’m grateful for revisions to clear them up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Getting prose perfect in the first draft isn’t what’s important. So long as we can recognize and correct them in the following drafts, that’s where it counts.

  2. I don’t generally struggle with these issues, but my sister once told me that I use “and” to connect sentences too often.

  3. I love this! The trend these days seems to be writing the shortest sentences possible, whether they are correct or not. The grace and beauty of our language is lost in this practice. Your examples are great!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For better or worse, Hemingway had a tremendous influence on this (relatively) modern trend. The uber-simplified style may have worked well for him, but most of us will do well to be more balanced in our approach.

  4. I still struggle with semi-colons. I just started learning how to use them a few months ago; so at first I overused them; or added them where they didn’t belong; kind of like when I learned about the em dash—though I still overuse those—lol;

    It doesn’t help that the spell-check on MS Word always tells me to change my commas to semi-colons. That jerk!

  5. Is there something genius about Cormac McCarthy’s style that I’m not seeing? His prose and structure in The Road was so sloppy and unconventional I couldn’t even finish it. It just felt like he was so afraid of boring readers that he stripped himself of words as much as possible and has a space for every few sentences/paragraphs as if he thinks his readers have no attention span at all. The one thing I really don’t understand is the lack of quotation marks when there is dialogue. If I am just being too cynical my apologies, but too me the prose and structure seems rather counter-intuitive and on an unrelated matter, the book seems to have a serious lack of plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I gotta say I loved The Road. The stripped-down style worked brilliantly for conveying the bleakness of the apocalyptic world. But it’s very unusualness makes it something readers will either violently love – or violently hate. So it’s definitely not something I recommend mimicking.

      • Thanks for being polite and acknowledging that the style is not for everyone even for liking it. I’ve seen some people flip out other sights whenever someone challenges that book which made me a little hesitant to say anything. Btw, I’ve already read your Structuring/Outlining Your Novel, but now I’ve read the Memory Lights and have read the first 150 something pages of Dreamlander and I really think you are skilled and follow a lot of writing rules you enforce. You so cool!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Art is subjective. No one views anything in exactly the same way. That doesn’t detract from objectivity, but it absolutely informs our individual perspectives of a novel. And no one’s subjective opinion is worth more than someone else’s. :)

  6. I love semicolons; I probably use them way too much. ;-)

    These are good tips! Even the best of writers I think can fall prey to one or more of these issues from time to time, and it’s always good to have a reminder!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s way too easy to become blind to our own faults. We can think we’re doing everything perfectly, when nothing could be father from the truth.

  7. I don’t have anything intelligent to say, but I just wanted to praise you for your amazing blog! I think every post is helpful to me in some small way and I prefer learning bit by bit. ;)

  8. I am in awe at your ability to write, to write about writing and to write about how not to write. For those like myself just jumping in to the pool of fiction I am most appreciative of all you do for us newbie swimmers. I especially appreciated the examples given for each. Reading each was helpful but reading them out loud, sealed the deal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like to pass out floaties and warnings not to swim thirty minutes after eating. ;) Glad you found the post helpful!

  9. You can’t scream at the train to stop. The train has no ears. She screamed at the machinist of the train, for people to react. :)

    Blessings,

    Anna Labno

  10. Great article, thank you!

    An easy tip to help get your grammar and cadence right is to read it out loud. If you’re getting tongue tied then it might be worth giving the sentence(s) another go. I found it particularly useful for run ons and dialogue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Reading out loud is a brilliant technique. It’s great for smoothing awkward phrasing, nabbing typos, and giving us a different perspective of our words.

  11. This is one area I rarely have problems with… occasionally, I’ll have fragments, but I usually use them for effect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with a well-placed fragment. Particularly if we’re writing in a deep POV, the pattern of the narrator’s thoughts is likely to lend itself to the occasional fragment. It’s only when we overuse them that they become problematic.

  12. I’m notorious for fragmented sentences. I can get away with them in dialogue (if it fits the character), but not so great for narrative. Working on it. :-)

  13. Fragments are allowed in fiction since a lot of people now use deep point of view.

  14. Now fragments are allowed in fiction since a lot of writers now use deep point of view. So, it isn’t an error unless overused, or the person who’s using them doesn’t know how.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. Run-ons and semi-colons aren’t “incorrect” in fiction either. They’re a technique used to achieve a specific effect. It’s only when they (or any technique) gets out of control that they become ineffective.

  15. Have you ever read ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ by Patrick Ness? (If not, I sincerely recommend it.) His prose/style is very unique. I found it pulled me deeper into the story rather than jerking me out of it.

    Would you say that the first two, run-ons and incomplete sentences, are alright sprinkled throughout the prose every so often, especially in an emotionally tense scene for a jarred character? Or should they be kept away from?

    Thanks for another great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t read Ness – but I’ll keep an eye out for him. In answer to your question: yes, fragments and run-ons are absolutely a legitimate stylistic choice. But, as with anything in writing, balance is the key.

  16. #2 – Fragments. But what if that’s part of your writing style. When I write, I write like I think… And I think in thought fragments…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fragments aren’t wrong, in fiction, in themselves. It’s only when they end up creating an unattractive writing style (through overuse) that they become problematic.

  17. Ellipses are my favorite writerly vice. I’m not sure if their (over)use qualifies as choppy, but I just … well, like them! :-)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ellipses *can* contribute to choppy prose, but there’s actually a sort of “lyrical length” to them that tends to stretch out sentences and phrases, making them seem longer than they actually are. So they can often help soften otherwise choppy prose.

  18. I use fragments. Frequently. (See?)
    Oftentimes it’s very intentional, though I usually go back and edit (expanding some of them and leaving others purposefully).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first draft gets to be our dry-eraser draft. We can be as reckless and naughty as we want, because we have the opportunity to go back and correct all our smudges later.

  19. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Hi,

    My struggle with choppy prose evolves from trying to write Motivation-Reaction-Units.
    Those sentences almost always sound choppy.
    I have to work on this urgently.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Optimally, MRUs *shouldn’t* be choppy. If they’re messing up the rhythm of your prose, feel free to skip them as needed. But they’re worth practicing until you become comfortable with them and feel they’re flowing well for you.

      • Siegmar Sondermann says:

        Will do.

        I guess, Bruce Lee got it right, when he said:
        “Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
        After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
        Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I love that. Great quote and very applicable.

          • Siegmar Sondermann says:

            I trifled a bit with your example. Tried to develop some MRU´s in the first half.

            The clock read two minutes after.
            Ariel felt her stomach cramp. Her eyes scanned the platform.
            On the main track the train began to move. Ariel grabbed her suitcase and ran down the platform in a sprint.
            “Wait, dammit.” Her voice failed. She stopped, panting for air, and gazed after the train.
            The last coach became smaller and finally vanished.
            Ariel sensed a lump in her throat. Tears welled and she wiped her eyes. “This is so unfair.”
            Her legs turned to jelly and she sank on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her.
            She fished inside her pocket for a Cleenex, when a man stopped beside her and asked if he could help.
            Ariel sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all – or maybe it was a miracle?

  20. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    @Siegmar: Good job! But watch out for those “floating body parts.” E.g., “She scanned the platform” instead of “her eyes scanned the platform.”

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