Most Common Writing Mistakes: Is Your Prose Too Complex?

(By the way, I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, after the site was recommended to me as an alternative to the Smart-Edit software program I reviewed last month.) 

If story is an art unto itself, then prose is a different kind of art altogether. Writing a book is about the melding of two different worlds: story and words. Most of us start out as storytellers, in love with the sheer power of the tale. But most of us also end up falling in love with the wordplay. If you’re like me, then stringing together gorgeous sentences—one word after another, like gems on a silver chain—is almost as rewarding as the upwelling of inspiration that creates the story itself.

But don’t be fooled. Prose isn’t as easy as the poets sometimes make it look. Good prose is about creating the proper effect. One of the things that gets in the way of that effect is complexity. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a lengthy, twisty, packed sentence. Good literature is full of them. But used wrongly or too often, complex prose can create distance between your readers and your words—or, worse, just leave them confused.

 

Most Common Writing Mistakes, 23: Is Your Prose Too Complex

How to Spot Problematic Complexity in Your Prose

How can you tell if that beautiful, complex paragraph of yours is awesome—or just overkill? Think of it this way: the more complex a sentence is, the more “guilty” it is—until proven innocent. In other words, complexity has to bear the weight of extra scrutiny. If you’ve got a huge sentence that you just love, don’t just let it slid right on by. Take a moment to really look at it. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it in there just because you love it?
  • Is it really the best way to get the thought across to the reader?
  • Is it in any way confusing?
  • Could it be stated more simply?
  • What would you lose if you opted for simplicity?

Consider this great big honker of a sentence:

As Clancy watched the sunset swirl into the night, he stood on the edge of dock, and he breathed, deeply, desperately, drunkenly of the coming darkness, wondering if this crepuscular vision was a sign of his coming doom, his very own shroud of death falling to his shoulders.

How to Transform Complex Prose Into Simple Prose

In correcting unnecessarily complex language, the first rule of thumb to keep in mind is that simple is better. Almost always, if you can pare a sentence down, you should. This means doing one or any of the following:

  • Deleting redundancies.
  • Dividing long sentences into many shorter sentences.
  • Replacing hundred-dollar words with ten-cent words.
  • Telling it straight, instead of waxing metaphoric.

Let’s see if we can’t fix that horror of a sentence from before:

Clancy watched the sunset fade into darkness. He stood on the edge of dock, and he breathed in the coming night. Would this twilight be the last he would see?

We might make an argument for some of flourishes in the original sentence. But how much clearer is this new version? How much punchier? How much less melodramatic?

During the first draft, don’t be afraid to let those words flow in every little ol’ poetic direction your brain can dream up. But when the time comes to revise, look at every sentence with a critical eye. The more complex your prose, the more critical you should be.

Tell me your opinion: What is your rule of thumb for analyzing the worth of your sentences?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
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 IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and 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. My rule of thumb in analyzing my sentences is quite simple. I imagine a narrator reading my words, and sometimes, as I know you do as well, I read the sentence out loud. If it flows well when spoken, as a narration, it stays. If it is difficult to say aloud, it will be hard to read. Great post and tips, Katie.

  2. When I analyze the worth of my sentences, I think of the line “keep it pithy.” I watch too much Bill O’Reilly with my mom.

    As Cecillia’s saying, it’s good to read your sentences aloud. My old grammar teacher/newspaper adviser constantly urged students to do that.

  3. Good advice. I have rarely read my story out loud but I have talked and acted out scenes before putting them on paper. I have fun acting them out before writing them down. Guess its time to do both again.

  4. @Cecilia: Great rule of thumb. Reading our work aloud is great for so many reasons.

    @Josh: As they say, brevity is the soul of wit.

    @Connecting: Oh, yes, acting out scenes is half the fun! Just make sure the neighbors aren’t watching. 😉

  5. I too like a well-formed sentence with a bit of complexity, but if it’s randomly thrown in for the obvious sake of looking pretty, that irks me. I have a hard time taking such language seriously when I see an author using an overabundance of flowery, complex sentences (I tend to find a lot of this in “classic” literature, which is one reason I’m guilty of not reading a lot of those..).

    One of my favorite authors, Dee Henderson, has been my greatest inspiration in forming my writing. She has a way of weaving a story to make it exciting and “moving along” without going overboard. One day I took one of her books and studied the writing, and I was shocked to see that everything was actually stated simply and to the point, and yet I still considered the writing to be skillfully crafted.

    My “rule of thumb” is to make sure everything is clear and realistic. Would my character really be taking the time to analyze every emotion running through her soul, or would it be better show her feelings through a simple action and let the readers move along with her?

  6. Excellent post. I am sometimes guilty of this, especially in setting scenes. It’s easy to give into the flowery prose urge. It’s hard to resist it for the sake of clarity.

  7. Great post, as always. I’ve noticed that the more I’ve learned about writing, the less I have to edit. I still have a tendency to use a redundancy now and then, but the program I use (Pro Writing Aid) catches most of them. I did try to view your Smart-Edit tutorial, but the video was down.

  8. @Sarah: One thing I might say in defense of the classic authors is that their era had everyday people speaking much differently from how we speak today. Much of what is considered flowery today really wasn’t back then. Still, the very fact that we *don’t* talk like that anymore is a perfect reason to opt for simplicity.

    @Steve: No need to resist in that first draft. Let it flow! Sometimes we need to write all the flowery stuff in order to find the one or two simple details that really make the sentence pop.

    @Tom: I’m in the process of switching websites and servers, so that was probably why you had difficulty with the video. I apologize for that! You should be able to access the video directly on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cLz9iabK4c.

  9. I normally prefer short sentences. Sometimes, if it is applicable, I use long sentences with clarity.I agree with you that dialogues must be short. Most of our readers belong to the ‘microwave’ generation. They’re impatient. You’ve got to get their attention in a speed of light.

  10. That’s absolutely true and my fault for not recognizing it in what I said. I do find the difference in language fascinating; however, I personally do have a harder time understanding language written in that way and that’s why I don’t usually read them. Thanks for pointing that out to me.

  11. My rule of thumb is: If I can say it more succinctly *and* eloquently, it gets edited. If I have to re-read it at any point to understand meaning, it gets edited. I don’t believe I have an overly flowery style (excepting when I’ve recently read a classic, such as a recent read of “Pride & Prejudice”), so the beauty in the language is usually not something I worry about–of course, most mysteries aren’t exactly about the language. I’ll occasionally have a pretty section of prose, but mostly by accident.

  12. @Raf: Many writers lament the death of the “long” sentence. But, in truth, it’s hardly dead. It’s just not necessary most of the time.

    @Sarah: The density of the prose in classic books is increasingly a stumbling block for modern readers – as our own version of the English language evolves farther and farther away from what it used to be. Interesting to think that, in another hundred years, readers will probably be saying the same thing about our books!

  13. @Liberty: Always important to know whom we’re writing for. Mystery readers have totally different expectations from literary readers, who have totally different expectations from fantasy readers.

  14. When I was a purely academic writer, I riled against the overly complex jargon and beating round the bush style of my fellow researchers. But now, when I am trying to write clear, plain prose, I find myself falling rather frequently into that trap of bushy, ornate sentences. I mean, why use just one word when three four-syllable words will do the trick? Timely reminder, thanks, I do need to work on it.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I use the Flesch-Kincaid readability calculator every so often to test passages: http://www.standards-schmandards.com/exhibits/rix/

    I try to have a “prosey” sentence early in the exposition part of a chapter as a hook, but I try not to do too many of them. One thing I absolutely refused to do is to use contractions in prose (dialog of course). Yes that’s the English degree talking. I see too many authors dumbing down via contractions in prose, passive voice, and fragments.

    The diction of a piece is entirely driven by the audience. The sweet spot for targeting the masses is a 7th grade reading level as a MAXIMUM. When I first learned that, I was stunned.

  16. @Marina: As Pascal says, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I did not have time.” Sometimes the simple sentences are actually that much more difficult to write. Go figure. :p

    @Anonymous: If you’re writing in a narrative voice in which no contractions make sense (e.g., historical), then it’s definitely important to adhere to that. But since very few modern people talk (or think) without contractions, it often makes more sense and is truer to the character’s narrative voice to include them.

    • I just finished the audiobook of _Call to Treason_ by Jeff Rovin (created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik.) All the dialogue was rendered with no use of contractions at all.

      It really stood out and seemed quite jarring, perhaps especially when read aloud. Real people naturally speak in contractions all day long. Dialogue composed without them seemed really stiff and artificial – almost as if English were not the speakers’ first language.

      So whatever you feel you must do in your own voice as narrator, please don’t artificially distort your characters’ dialogue to satisfy some imagined requirement for “proper” grammar.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I’m glad you brought this up! I think I just might do a future post in this series on that subject.

  17. This is certainly one thing I have to watch for in my writing. I tend to write some rather convoluted sentences on occasion. Fortunately, my wife has no qualms about pointing them out when she reads my work!

  18. Every writer needs at least one ruthless beta reader in his life!

  19. I was considering to use “squeezing his lacrimal glands” in the opening paragraph of my WIP, but decided to go for a tear-jerker 😉

  20. An astute choice. 😉

  21. I use a few simple rules of thumb for revising sentences (they aren’t exhaustive, but they help simplify the process). The first is basically identifying what kind of problem I’m looking at– sentences have to be coherent in themselves, they have to fit with the sentence before and the one after, they have to find their place in the paragraph, the paragraphs have to find their place on the page, pages must meld together into chapters, and chapters, chained together properly, make up a story worth telling (hopefully). Understanding the larger structure in such a way makes revision more intuitive, I think. One sentence level tool I use constantly is, simply, making my subjects more concrete, and moving them closer to the beginning of the sentence. A way to find where your subjects end is to locate the verb. Is the subject two lines long? Then it’s too long, and needs revised (with some exceptions, of course).

  22. Totally, 100% agree. The best writers are always working off instinct. But the more we can quantify and consciously guide that instinctive talent, the more control we’ll have over our writing.

  23. So true! Think I already read something similar from you, but it is always good to be reminded 😀 I think it is a matter of experience to learn complexity doesn´t always pay off, most of the time we need the words to fade and the meaning to remain in the readers mind, sort of the words not getting in the middle, and for that simplicity is definitely the key. Strong meaning is always stronger in simple words (such as “great power means great responsability”).
    Thanks again 🙂

  24. Great way to put it. That’s exactly right. Very few passages stick in our heads verbatim. It’s just the *sense* they convey or the images they evoke. If the prose’s complexity is getting in the way of either of those, it’s not doing it’s job well at all.

  25. Hmmm. Overwriting. Guilty. I have to ruthlessly prune my prose otherwise the day’s work reads like an excerpt from Malory or Chaucer. Well, not that bad, but you know what I mean. I think that the simpler you can make it, the more powerful the prose becomes. You want absolutely nothing in the way of the reader and the character, especially in the closing chapters of a novel. That said, it’s hard to get it right.

  26. I love beautiful prose. But the first and most important qualifier for prose, beautiful or not, always has to be, “Is this serving the story?” If not, save it for a birthday card.

  27. Haha, well, hope the birthday cards pile won´t grow too much 😉 I agree complexity hits better when it is scarce, just as metaphors 😀

  28. In my first drafts I try to get the ideas down the best I can, so my sentences are usually wonky. When I go back to do the re-write I spend a lot of time choosing the exact words and structures I need to nail the tone and keep the story moving. I love an economy of words, but it’s not always easy. Oh well, that’s what practice is for– to make whatever you do better, right?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Great approach. If we’re over-thinking our prose in our first drafts, we’re likely end up letting our infernal internal editors bind and gag us. Much better to just write in the first draft. We can always go back and clean things up later.

  29. So…Smart-Edit or Grammarly? Which do you prefer?

  30. I cut a lot. One of my friends said I write too little words, and the story becomes unpleasant to read. Then she suggested me how to rewrite, and all her suggestions were fillers scenes.
    She said she likes fillers.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Filler for the sake of filler is rarely a good idea. But every story needs “padding,” in the sense that you’re providing a cushion of reaction periods in between the full-on action.

  31. April Counts says:

    This is something I am having a lot of difficulty with. My character is an empath and feels everything. She most often experiences these emotions as physical sensations, smells, tastes, etc. It is an inherent part of the story that the reader is aware of other characters’ emotions through the main character’s point of view. I often use metaphors and similes to describe what she experiences, but how much of this is too much? I can’t do away with it entirely, because it is central to the whole theme of the book.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Ultimately (and perhaps a bit frustratingly), that’s a question only you can answer. After analyzing the effect of the prose and making sure you feel it’s the best it can be, I would run it by several betas. After they’ve read it, ask them if they feel the prose was ever too overbearing – or if you’ve struck exactly the right note.

      • April Counts says:

        Thank you for responding. That’s sort of what I was thinking too. I guess I just dread hearing someone else tell me that the line I thought was beautifully crafted and descriptive is too much after all.

        • K.M. Weiland says:

          You probably *will* hear it sooner or later. Art is deeply subjective. Not everyone will share the same opinion about any piece of art, no matter it’s objective worth. It’s always valuable to listen to and consider others’ opinions. But, at the end of the day, remember that you’re the one making the decisions.

  32. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    -Eyebrow twitches- ACK unneeded ‘ly’ words Hiss! Lots of them; some one get the shotgun. (Referring to the example sentence you provided.) Other good words that might be unneeded are: Stuff, things, got, was, is, are, am and otehr words like that So, cutting those out to can help mkae it less complex, as they don’t usually add or say much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I generally keep a list of words I know I’m overusing in any given story and running Find/Replace searches periodically to nail them.

  33. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    I wish we could edit for typos. XD I type too fast.

  34. Christopher says:

    I’m coming to this get-together a little late, but I wanted to comment. I’m going to step out of line here and say that truncating senetences and deleting words are fine but should not be a writers M.O. There are writers that have ornate stylized prose, and personally, I think it’s fantastic. The use of a good metaphore should be applauded.

    As a case in point, I shall refer to the Great F. Scott Fitzgerald who once wrote this long, windy prose carrying a beautiful metaphor: “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to those machines that register earthquakes 10,000 miles away.” The metaphor here is personality being represented as gestures, and Fitzgerald makes a peculiarly enjoyable simile to a seisometer. As one person put it, we start off talking about personality and end up on the subject of earthquakes!

    Personally, if find Fitzgerald’s writing to be extraordinarily good. (As an aside, I also find Jack London to be an extraordinary writer, and if anyone has not read “The Sea Wolf” yet, I implore you to do so.)

    As for the use of multi-syllabic words in lieu of plain, run-of-the-mill words, I have to say “whatevz.” It is an issue of audience, for sure, but it is also, as I believe, an issue of style. And I will elaborate on that. If I were to use a “hundred-dollar word” it would not necessarily be due to my having rummaged through a thesaurus for something exotic and erudite sounding but, rather, it is due to my using a word that is the perfect fit. And when I say perfect fit, it is not only that which conveys the pure meaning of thought behend the sentence or what-have-you but also for the sake of sylistic literary devices and creating that artistic effect, reminiscent of poetry.

    Whether one shoots for the simplicity of Hemmingway or the comlexity of Fitzgerald, a writer will find achieving that perfect sentence difficult. I come from a background in journalism as well as law, and I have had to write efficienty and succinctly to save my writing from being obliterated by an editor. And when it comes to the law, nothing could be worse than having a judge misunderstand a point that is being made in a brief. I think what the goal shoudl be is knowing when to be poetic with prose and when to cut to the point with one’s sharpened knowledge of grammar. There is a skill to be honed balance to be struck; we can have two masters: the ornate and the straight-forward.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I totally, 100% agree with you. Complex prose is only a problem when it’s *too* complex, and that is largely a subjective call based on style and circumstances. Still, as a very general rule of thumb, simple is usually better than complicated.

      • Christopher says:

        Yeah! Definitely.

        By the way, I just wanted to say that I found it odd that I stumbled onto your site. I just purchased five of your books, and they came in the mail just the other day. I had read wonderful reviews about them, and I also had planned on writing some fiction. I have not done that since I was in my early 20s. Everything I have been doing is scholastic, non-fiction or legal in nature. Can I write a good fictional story? Have no idea, but I’m going to find out. First, however, I’m going to read one of your stories. Just wanted to mention this. I was looking on the internet to see what the preferred style is for fictional writing by some of the major publishers, and I stumbled onto this page and your website. I would have come here anyway, eventually. *smile*

        Anyway, I was perviously reading about writing style, about the issue of ornate writing and straight-forward writing, and someone posed the argument that writing style is something that is inherent in the writer, that either style comes out onto the “paper” without any overt conscious thought. It is a subconscious expression. Perhaps that is true, or perhaps it is just the habit of writing that someone fell into, in a sense. Either way, I agree with you that simple is better. I think this is true (and I am probably about to cause some blood to rush to the face for a few) for many because of their current skill in writing and that less skilled will profit from the “less is more” approach. I think the issue is not necessarily complex versus simple but, rather, proper understanding of grammar and craft.

        Everyone knows what grammar is, but craft, at least how I am using it, should be defined for clarity. When I write “craft,” I mean that ability to incorporate parallelism when needed, to choose the word that is the best fit, even if it is uncommon. To have a flow and structure as if it were a great musical composition. Writing cannot be structured arbitrarily; the words cannot be chosen capriciously, the clauses not strung together whimsically: there must be an intelligence behind everything, a reason for its being. If the effect is complex, there is a reason for it. The same for the sentences that are simple. If reading what you wrote feels like stirring cement with an eyelash, then simplify. And now, I believe, I am restating what you wrote or, at least, stating something similar.

        It seems that the main issue with complexity is that there are many people who have not come to that point in writing where fluidity of prose is, for the most part, effortless. For example, there is an inability to recognize the dangling modifier or the tendency to pollute a sentence with needless and inefficient modifying words. There is also that innate, intuitive ability to just know what works and what doesn’t. The latter I believe can only come from (1) reading everything that you can and (2) writing continuously and having others as well as one’s self critique and edit. The former, however, seems to be much more important than the latter. I should also mention again that there is an innate ability, a talent, a gift—whatever one wishes to call it—that enables a person to write well. I know people disagree, but I have witnessed the child who writes like an adult. Writing can be an innate talent.

        Well, I have rambled on too much, but I thought it is food for thought.

        I am very much looking forward to finishing your novel and reading the other four books of yours that I got!!!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thanks, Christopher! I hope you enjoy the books!

          I tend to think that someone’s writing voice is a bit of a combination between natural proclivity and conscious practice. For example, my prose totally leans towards the complex, but I’ve consciously worked to simplify it in many areas to achieve clarity.

Speak Your Mind

*