Seriously, What Makes Good Prose?
One of the coolest things about writing is how subjective it is. There are so many different types of writers out there that you could pick up two books sitting next to each other on a store shelf and the way each author writes will be drastically different. Pick up another two, and their style will still be different than the first two you picked up.
There’s a lot that goes into creating your own style, but one of the biggest things you need to consider is your prose. That’s a tough one though, because so many writers–even well-established authors–struggle to unlock this secret.
So what makes good prose?
That’s what we’re going to cover in this article, but let’s back up a couple of steps and figure out what prose is. I love visiting Merriam-Webster, our trusted dictionary friend, for definitions. They define prose as:
A literary medium distinguished from poetry especially by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech.
It’s a great definition filled with way too many words that are 7+ letters long. Put a little more simply, prose is a style of writing that’s closer to how humans actually speak than the structured styles you might see in poetry, songs, or eldritch incantations.
Basically, prose is the way we style our writing. If someone says, “That person is a good writer!” they probably mean that their prose is good.
The Problem with “Good Prose”
The thing is, what makes good prose is largely subjective. Let’s look at Mark Twain and Jane Austen, for example, arguably two of the most well-known and revered writers of their time. There are a lot of quotes from Twain bashing on Austen’s prose.
Here’s just one such quote.
“To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible.” - Letter to W. D. Howells, January 18, 1909
Some people might agree (though in a less dramatic way), while others are probably fuming just reading this.
Realistically, your prose is part of your writing style, something that incorporates tone, voice, pacing, flow, and more. It is uniquely yours. I can’t tell you how to write your best form of writing.
But what I can do is provide you with some ideas to help bolster your prose. Because, while prose is subjective, there are certain standards that us writers are held to when we pen a book (and by pen I mean type, at least for most of us). So, I’ve got some tips for you, dear writer.
The best way you can master prose is by keeping these tips in mind while crafting your own voice.
Have you ever read a paragraph in a book and wondered, “What the heck did I just read?”
Vague, muddled writing is the antithesis of good prose. In your book, there is only one thing that can paint a picture in your readers’ minds: your words. So if your words are convoluted, contradictory, or require a reader to re-read and dissect them, you aren’t crafting good prose.
The same could be said for writers who use involute, supercilious, superfluous words for the sake of trying to sound smarter. See what I did there? It’s annoying.
Don’t make your readers stop and Google what a word means. That’s bad prose.
At the same time, you don’t want to spend two pages describing something that could take a paragraph to properly illustrate for your reader. Good prose is concise, at least to a degree.
I’m not saying that you can’t add in details or flair. There is a place for that in writing. Take a look at Cormac McCarthy. The Road won a Pulitzer. But some people–myself included–find that he spends way too many words describing things.
But some people love that. More power to them.
For example, my colleague, Nisha, told me that The Road was “such a good book” when she was reading this article for me. But she didn’t take five pages to say that, so is she really a Cormac McCarthy fan? I’ll let you be the judge.
For most writers who aren’t McCarthy, more concise writing usually equals stronger writing. Once you’re done with your first draft, cut out some of those extra fluff words that aren’t actually adding anything for your readers.
Having more words doesn’t make you a better writer, nor does it make for good prose.
Style is excruciatingly difficult to define, but it’s part of what will make your prose good. For our purposes, style is similar to an author’s voice.
McCarthy, for example, has a very detail-oriented style. Other authors might use more of a breakneck, action-packed style. Most folks fall in between.
Style is, in large part, determined by genre. If you think you can use the same style of writing in horror as you do in fantasy, you’re sorely mistaken (this is coming from experience). Study the successful books in your genre and see what voice the authors use.
There is no right or wrong here, but people reading a genre will expect certain elements in the style of writing they are reading. If you deviate too much from your genre norms, you might lose some readers.
At the same time, your characters need their own style. When you’re writing dialogue for a character, or if the scene is being told from a specific character’s point of view, how do you differentiate that prose from the rest of your book?
If you’re writing from the perspective of a goody-two-shoes knight, your writing will differ greatly from the POV of a cutthroat bandit. But both will still mesh well with your chosen genre.
The best way to figure out your style? Read a lot and write even more.
Diction, or the words you choose, is a big part of crafting good prose. At face value, it might seem like diction overlaps with clarity and brevity. And it does, to an extent.
But your word choice goes even further than that.
First, vivid language generally creates stronger prose than less vivid language. This means balancing the fine edge between bringing your scene to life and overwhelming your reader with too many details.
Boring language and boring descriptions make for a boring book. That seems pretty easy to reconcile, right? Incorporate different senses, view things from a different perspective, and engross your reader.
An easy way to do this is to look at your use of adjectives. Too many adjectives can be cumbersome. Try to avoid using more than one adjective unless it is necessary. When you use adjectives, read the sentence twice out loud–once as is, once without the adjectives at all. See which one reads better.
At the same time, think about how you use your nouns and verbs. These are the workhorses of your writing, so mix in some less-common ones amongst your writing. A tree standing next to a river can be a Douglas fir looming over the same river. A car being driven down the road can be a ‘69 Mustang careening through traffic.
As with all things, you want to use these in moderation. If your entire novel is filled with uncommon words, finishing your book becomes uncommon, too.
This one is a little tricky and doesn’t work with all writing. But when you successfully integrate wit into your writing, boy does it make for some good prose. Wit is dry and snappy. It’s funny and refreshing. Most importantly, it can spice up your prose and add a distinct element to your style.
Furthermore, characters who are witty exude confidence or show they are familiar with one another, letting you establish character traits in an easy way without dropping exposition on your reader.
Wit doesn’t belong everywhere, though. Think about your genre, your character’s voice, and if it fits with the rest of your writing. If it does, wit can help bolster your prose.
How would you feel if every song ever written had the same rhythm to it? What if there was no change of pace or beat? It would be so boring.
The same can be said for your prose. Imagine if your pace was the same throughout your story. If it was all long, descriptive sentences or nothing but snappy, three-word sentences?
You’re going to lose your reader.
Mixing up the rhythm of your writing will help keep the reader engaged. Variety is the spice of life, but it’s also the spice of writing. So spice up your book with short, punchy sentences. Make your reader ponder with long, emotional sentences. Play with the pacing and you’ll find what makes your prose great.
If you keep all of the above in mind and keep writing (as writers need to do), you’ll develop not only stronger prose, but a voice that is uniquely yours. But, as I’ve mentioned, part of that process is reading–both your favorite authors and other books in your genre.
Throughout the process, you’re going to start building your style like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, piecing together limbs and organs you take from other authors.
The trick is to use the pieces you pick up to complement your writing. Bring them together to create something new.
Do not simply try to copy another writer’s style completely. First of all, what’s the point? You’re doing this because you love writing. If you want to write exactly like another author, become a ghostwriter.
More importantly, you won’t do it successfully. People will see through it and you’ll just become a cheap imitation of other people.
Instead, be yourself. Make your own voice. Learn from the best and then become the writer you want to be.
Be authentic in your writing and it will translate to good prose. This takes a lot of practice, but you can get there. I believe in you!
When Not to Overthink Your Prose
With all of this information, your head might be spinning. It is a lot.
Honestly, perfecting prose isn’t something that can happen overnight. Heck, it isn’t something that can happen over the next year or five.
Becoming a prose magician is something you’ll be working on for the rest of your writing career. Because of that, don’t stress about it while you’re writing. If you focus too much on writing the perfect word for 80,000 words, your book will never get finished.
So don’t stress about the quality of your prose as you’re writing. It will strengthen with every word you create.
When You Should Overthink Your Prose
But when the first draft is done, that’s when you can focus on buffing up your verbiage. While you’re revising your first (or second, third, tenth) draft, that’s when it is time to drill down on your prose.
To recap, here’s a list of things to look out for when polishing that sweet, sweet prose:
Getting the words down is the easy part. Making them perfect can be tough.
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And happy writing!
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