THE BLOG
08/13/2013 11:44 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

The Way to Wicked Good Prose

"One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes," the French mime Etienne Decroux used to remind his students. His dictum works equally well for students of writing. Each word we choose is--or should be--a pearl.

Whether you're a floodgates-open writer or a blocked writer, remember: the first draft is just for getting the ideas down. It's in the revising that we sift through our words, letting only the most perfect specimens adorn the thread of syntax. These principles will help you banish the potatoes and burnish the pearls.

Be precise

Well-chosen nouns and adjectives are critical in setting scenes, establishing character, and giving readers strong visual images. The best nouns are not just concrete (naming something that can be seen, touched, heard, tasted, or felt), but also specific. Search for the most evocative and exact. Why choose "boat" when options include scow, skiff, yacht and yawl?

Watch for clusters of abstract nouns. Gluttons yammer about "adverse climatic conditions" instead of calling bad weather just that; rain is rain, not "precipitation activity." Replace groups of polysyllabic, abstract nouns with one or two exact words.

Ideally nouns and adjectives work together, as they do in Tim Cahill's description of tthe Ferris Fork of the Bechler River, in Yellowstone National Park:

Hot water from the pool above ran down the bank of the terrace, which was striated in several colors: wet brown and garish pumpkin and overachieving moss, all interspersed with running channels of steaming water and lined in creamy beige. The north side of the terrace was a Day-Glo green, overlaid with a precipitate of flawless cream.

Adjectives can do double-duty, painting both physical and psychological detail. In a profile about a North Carolina revenue agent, Alec Wilkinson wrote that Garland Bunting has "eyes that are clear and close-set and steel blue." Those three adjectives convey Bunting's glare and capture his gritty personality.

Be dramatic.

Once you get the hang of finding such synonyms, you will be primed to tackle verbs, the words that can transform an entire sentence. All verbs are either Static (to appear, to seem, to become) or Dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wander). Static verbs pour out naturally when we write or speak--"is" appears endlessly in most first drafts. But Dynamic verbs give writing power. Think action. And not just any action: To describe someone walking down the street consider gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger, and sashay.

Laura Hillenbrand uses verbs to power her description of a horse race: "Seabiscuit delivered a tremendous surge. He slashed into the hole, disappeared between his two larger opponents, then burst into the lead." Finally, Seabiscuit "shook free and hurtled into the home-stretch alone as the field fell away behind him."

If you pick pointed verbs, you'll be able to forgo adverbs. Many adverbs merely prop up a ho-hum verb. Why waste time with "He ran very quickly" when you can say He dashed or She hightailed it outta there?

Favor crisp sentences.

After picking the pearls, focus on how to string them onto the filament of the sentence. Start by tracking your subjects and verbs. After you've perked up the verbs, do a subject check. Can you identify the person or thing that is performing the action? Controlling the subjects of sentences controls the focus of the entire piece.

Don't be afraid to keep your sentences stark. Joan Didion follows a fluid sentence with a crisp one when describing the Santa Ana winds in "Los Angeles Notebook":

"I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks."

Muhammed Ali was a master of the powerful punch, whether physical or verbal. Take this rap from 1974: "Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I'm so mean, I make medicine sick." Ali keeps his subject steady, using his predicates like fierce jabs.

Simple sentences can pack a punch, and they can deliver a punch line. Groucho Marx depended on simple sentences: "Alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse."

Make music.

Experiment, as Ali does, with elements like rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. Alliteration repeats the initial sounds in words: sin and syntax, content of their character, Lolita, light of my life. Onomatopoeia allows the sound of a word to echo the sound of the thing: dishes crash, teeth gnash, and Saran Wrap crinkles.

Choose short, single syllable words to set up a staccato rhythm (Timothy Leary's indelible "Turn on, tune in, drop out"), or more mellifluous words for a more melodious flow (Lincoln's "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."). Vary the rhythm of sentences: Write a passage in short, crisp sentences. Write it again letting phrases elongate.
Play with other elements, too--the first person and the second, glorious words and guttural ones.

Conjure metaphors.

Metaphor, the comparison of disparate things, adds surprise, freshness, and depth. Don't just repeat an old cliché ("tension so thick you could cut it with a knife"). When William Finnegan describes the surf at Ocean Beach, he uses metaphor: "The first wall of sandy, grumbling white water felt like a barrel of gritty ice cubes poured down my back." Technically, that is a simile; like makes the comparison explicit. Metaphor can also be implicit; Finnegan compares offshore winds to an artist's implement: "On a good day, their sculptor's blade, meticulous and invisible, seems to drench whole coastlines in grace."

And, of course, Etienne Decroux was making a metaphor when he declared that "One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes."

Constance Hale is the author of SIN AND SYNTAX: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose.