The expression ‘clunky prose’ is often used by writing coaches and editors. It describes prose which is clumsily written. We’ve all been guilty of using clunky prose at some point, which is why the phrase is so commonly used. Aspiring debut authors often ask, ‘But what does ‘clunky prose’ mean? And how am I supposed to fix it?’
Clunky prose is a way of describing sentences which are a little bit awkward, unwieldy, usually not very smooth, or which contain too many words. They don’t read easily, and they can seem to drift. Sometimes, clunky prose has too many focuses, which confuse the reader because they don’t have a clear direction. The good news is, clunky prose is easy to sort out by applying some basic editing techniques. So, for example:
‘I pushed my shoulder into the door and it opened with a creak, before I threw my rucksack into the bushes so that nobody would hear the noise.’
This is a clunky sentence because it has several focusses: shoulder, door, the sound the door makes, rucksack, bushes and again sound (this time with the inference that the narrator is being secretive for some reason). In storytelling terms, this paints a picture, but the detail is overloaded and the focus of the sentence changes continually. The first thing to do is to split the sentence down into its individual parts, to make it less clunky:
‘I pushed my shoulder into the door. It opened with a creak. I threw my rucksack into the bushes. I didn’t want anybody to hear me leave.’
Now, the sentence has been split into clear sections, none of which are overloaded (and therefore are no longer clunky). At this point, it’s possible to look at the word choices, with the aim of changing them to increase the level of sophistication:
‘I leaned into the door. The hinge squealed as I pushed. Carefully, I tossed my rucksack outside. It landed in a bush with a soft thud. I couldn’t risk being caught.’
When tinkering with a sentence, particularly in a high-tension scene, sometimes you can find yourself editing it several more times. So, it can be refined further, perhaps with the description increased:
‘The door was cold against my cheek. I pushed, and the hinge groaned. Carefully, I lowered my rucksack, and shoved it through the gap. A burst of rain stung my face. Somewhere out of sight, the sound of distant footsteps crossed the hall; the grandfather clock chimed, its bell unnaturally loud. I slipped through the gap and closed the door. The latch clicked behind me. I was free.’
Or, you might want to strip your description right back:
‘The door wasn’t locked. The hinge creaked as it swung open. Somewhere deep in the house, footsteps pounded; the grandfather clock chimed. Throwing my rucksack onto the path outside, I squeezed through the gap, and slipped out into the night.’
Whether you choose to use lots of words or very few is down to personal choice. It also depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the scene, but the aim is to keep the sentences uncluttered, direct, and with a limited focus.
The guidelines for avoiding clunky prose are:
Split long sentences into shorter ones, using a new sentence every time the focus changes.
Then, look at your word choices, including repeated words which could be changed or removed. Could any of the words be swapped out to add sophistication, or to enhance atmosphere?
Always leave your prose to ‘sit’ for as long as possible before the final edit, so that you can view it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing how things you never noticed before (like repeated words) will leap out at you.
This editing technique can be applied at any point in the writing process, from a quick review of a page of work-in-progress, to a full first-draft edit and beyond.