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Writing

How to Become a Better Writer: 5 Techniques to Enhance Your Prose

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 4, 2020 • 6 min read

Whether you’re writing fiction or a research paper, working on a first draft is the perfect time to experiment with new techniques and become a better writer.

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5 Techniques to Enhance Your Prose

The best way to discover your own style of writing is to read and be inspired by the literary techniques that your favorite writers use. In order to do that, it’s helpful to identify common techniques that can be used to develop your creative writing style.

1. Play With Time

There’s nothing wrong with a linear storyline, but jumping around in time can turn good writing into great writing. To break away from chronological storytelling, consider these tools:

  • Flashbacks: Flashbacks are when you jump back in time to tell a part of the story that happened in the past. You can use flashbacks to provide backstory on a character or to show how a past event influenced the storyline.
  • Flash-forwards: Flash-forwards let you jump forward in time to describe something that will happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet. Flash-forwards are a great way to foreshadow characters’ fates—leaving readers to wonder how they got there and what will eventually happen to them.
  • Foreshadowing: Unlike a flash-forward, foreshadowing doesn’t take your reader out of the chronology of the story, it just hints at what will happen in the future. Foreshadowing is a technique that you can use even in academic writing to hint at what will come later.

2. Strategically Choose a Point of View

There are several different options when it comes to point of view, and any one of them could be the perfect fit that brings your story to life:

  • First-person: First-person storytelling is told from one character’s perspective and uses words like “I” and “me.” It is a great way to develop voice for your story because your character’s personality will automatically help you add flavor to the narrative writing. First-person narrators can be unreliable, meaning they can lie to readers or misunderstand important events, causing interesting tension in the story. In nonfiction writing, first-person point of view can create a level of intimacy with your readers.
  • Third-person: Third-person storytelling is told from a point of view outside your characters’ heads, using words like “he,” “she,” and “they.” Third-person is a great way to help storytelling feel more objective and can help readers imagine the main character since they are watching them interact with the world from outside. Third-person narration can be “close”—think of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which follows Harry's thoughts and feelings while maintaining the distance of third person—or omniscient, where the narrator knows everything about every character.
  • Second-person: Second-person storytelling is also called “direct address,” and it uses words like “you” to talk to the readers directly. Second-person is the most uncommon point of view, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful—in fact, directly addressing the audience is a great way to grab their attention and make them feel complicit in the storytelling itself.

3. Appeal to the Senses

Make your prose shine with a mastery of sensory imagery. In real life, we experience the world through a combination of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, and your readers will respond best to writing that appeals to those five senses. Rather than just relying on sight—the most common writing method—to describe a room, why not branch out and talk about the way it smells? Readers will remember sensory details that surprise them.

  1. Visual description: Visual descriptions of physical attributes like color, size, shape, lightness and darkness, shadows, and shade are all part of visual imagery.
  2. Gustatory description: This can of description can include the five basic tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami—as well as the textures and sensations tied to the act of eating.
  3. Tactile description: This is what you can feel, and includes textures, temperature, and the many sensations a human being experiences when touching something.
  4. Auditory description: This is the way things sound. Literary devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration can help create sounds in writing.
  5. Olfactory description: Scent is one of the most direct triggers of memory and emotion, but can be difficult to write about. Since taste and smell are so closely linked, you’ll sometimes find the same words (such as “sweet”) used to describe both. Simile is common in olfactory imagery, because it allows writers to compare a particular scent to common smells like dirt, grass, manure, or roses.
  6. Kinesthetic description: This kind of description engages the feeling of movement. This can be similar to tactile imagery but deals more with full-body sensations, such as those experienced during exercise. Rushing water, flapping wings, and pounding hearts are all examples of kinesthetic imagery.

4. Draw Comparisons Using Figurative Language

Description and prose can be enhanced with figurative language. A good author uses comparisons to bring their descriptions to life; comparing the thing you’re describing to something else is like a shortcut to help readers make sense of the image, and it comes with the added bonus of helping you surprise, delight, or intrigue your readers.

  • Simile: A simile is a figure of speech in which you say something is like something else. An example of a simile is: “His face was red and glowing like the setting sun.”
  • Metaphor: A metaphor involves poetically saying something is something else—for instance, this line from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “Life … is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.”
  • Anthropomorphism: Anthropomorphism is when you apply human traits to a non-human or inanimate object—for instance, saying that a chair “sagged sadly” under your character’s weight. The chair doesn’t actually feel sad, but you can use the idea to conjure an image for your readers.
  • Metonymy: Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word or term stands in for another. A classic example is the phrase “all hands on deck,” in which “hand” is representative of an entire person.

5. Understand Grammatical Techniques

While grammar might not be as exciting as other creative writing skills, a strong understanding of grammar usage in the English language will help you construct clean sentences that are more pleasurable to read.

  • Parallelism: Parallelism, aka parallel structure, refers to the process of balancing a sentence by making each phrase or clause follow the same grammatical structure. A famous example of parallelism is the opening of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  • Asyndeton: Asyndeton is a technique commonly found in speeches and persuasive writing. It consists of eliminating conjunctions (“and,” “or”) to create rhythm or a sense of urgency in a sentence.
  • Syllepsis: Syllepsis is a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is used in two parts of a sentence. The word syllepsis comes from the Ancient Greek “a taking together” (zeugma, from the Ancient Greek “a yoking together”). Here’s an example from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Passion lends them power, time means, to meet." The word “lends” is recycled from the first part of the sentence to the second, avoiding unnecessary repetition and creating poetic rhythm.
  • Active voice: When writing in the active voice, the subject of a sentence is performing an action. Passive voice sentences contain subjects that are the object of the sentence’s verb. They are not the “doer” of the sentence; they are the recipient of an action. For example, “Susan threw the ball” is in active voice—Susan is performing the action and she is the subject of the sentence—whereas “The ball was thrown by Susan,” is an example of passive voice, since the subject of the sentence is the ball.

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