How To Write Prose

Have you ever read a book that had such gorgeous prose, you wondered how the writer managed to produce such a masterpiece? Great writing combines words that paint a picture in the reader’s mind and phrases that have a musical, lyrical quality. To write prose, you need to think about the words you are using, how you are using them, and how they sound when you speak them. With a little work, you can write prose that is as lovely as a poem.


Read good writing

A great way to figure out how certain words should sound in your sentences is to be an avid reader. The more you read, the better you can figure out how your sentences might be best structured for the best effect. Find sources you enjoy, from newspapers to novels to articles from magazines. Reading books will particularly help you figure out how to use specific style elements like parallel structure or long sentences.

After you read, pay attention to how the writer uses the language. Does he or she choose specific word symbols to represent specific concepts in the story? For instance, the main character of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may hold a definition close to her “red cloak.” You could create a main character whose defining concept is “my car” and weave it into your prose. Does the writer use longer, denser sentences? The rhythm of spoken vowels can help you create sing-song lyrics, as long as you make sure you continue making sense. Does an author use short, dynamic sentences? You could experiment with cluster-bombs for sentence style, as long as you have a natural reasoning behind it.

Learn to spot clumsy writing in your favorite authors

You can often spot good prose when you read your favorite novel or poem, and another of your favorites seems to lack the same luster. Read with a critical eye, and make notes on how the writer might have improved his or her results. Get a keyboard if possible, or a pen and paper, and write down which words you love, which could be stronger, and which don’t seem to add much to the story. Chances are, you’ll come away from reading with a list of words and phrases that stand out, and with a sense of what makes ‘good’ prose.

You don’t need an English degree to pen good prose. Some tips for working on your prose simply involve things you’ve likely done in school to improve your writing skills. Write a short story, or a few poems, and participate in creative writing clubs or through NaNoWriMo. Bring journalling into your writing practice as well — noticing the stars at night can help you find that perfect sense of awe when capturing the awe-inspiring sun at noon. While fiction writers benefit from second-person, first-person, and third person experiences, no matter their genre, they also push the boundaries more than the average writer. These reading methods can also help you become a novelist, and if you’re writing non-fiction or informational text, it can still help you learn how to write and maintain a sense of immediacy with your readers.

Tackle the foundational basics

To create prose that’s worth reading, you’ll need to put in the work at the beginning to avoid overlooking details that could trip you later. They say that writing is rewriting, and nowhere is that truer than with prose. The first step to success in crafting good narrative prose is to reject the idea that there are rules. Rules stifle creativity and good prose. However, to write really, really good prose, there are some foundational basics that all great writers use. Make sure to find out what they are, and to use them as building blocks in your writing. Are you using as many sensory details as possible? Are you finding unique and interesting phrases and descriptions to liven up your text? Do you know why your story is being told? Are you asking yourself where it takes place? What happened right before your story starts?

Once you feel confident with those basics, you can start to play with the options that genre will offer you. Why choose just one? Explore the possibilities in different genres by trying out the narrative structures, character types, central conflicts, and word choices that are common to each. Then try integrating what you’ve learned from an author in one genre with what worked in another, until you’ve found an angle that you think would fall into a new, distinct genre.

Ask the right questions

Think about the sentences that you like. Those that are shortest, or the ones that are the most on topic? The biggest flaw in most writing is that an author will sacrifice clarity in order to say something artistic. This is the largest pitfall to avoid. Ask yourself why you wrote a sentence, and be sure that the answer corresponds to the subject at hand — you shouldn’t be just adding detail for the sake of adding detail. It should be clear and concise, and should apply to the narrative as a whole. If you’re going to be writing a flow chart, make sure that every sentence is pointing to the next, that you don’t have any extra characters to learn, new races, or anything else that isn’t necessary for the narrative. If you aren’t sure where things need improvement, track the sentences on a white board and try to create a clear stream.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most high quality writing should be scannable. That means that your reader shouldn’t have to think too hard, because he or she should be able to easily identify the topic of a sentence, even if it’s not the first one in the paragraph. So if there’s an opportunity to break up a long sentence, it’s only wise to take it. When breaking the sentence up, be sure to do so without introducing confusion. If you move around a verb or a subject, then you’ll have to make sure to follow them and zero them in on the same object or person. And if you’re using a long compound, or a bizarre acronym, you’ll want to check it against a thesaurus to find a similar phrase with fewer syllables.

Commit to a process that works

For many new writers, the idea of how to write prose seems impossible. After all, how can you know which words to use, or where to begin if you don’t know what you want to say? The process isn’t difficult, of course, but you’ll need to structure your day and make time to write. Whether you decide to go to a cafe, hole up alone in your apartment, or find a writing platform that lets you freelance at night and on the weekends, you must commit to writing regularly. Your first draft will not be your final draft, in fact, your first draft will be your worst draft. That’s perfectly fine, you don’t have to be a typer to write prose, in fact, you need to have a firm sense of good prose writing habits to develop a style of your own, which is required to write prose effectively.

One of the best habits you can develop is to get up and write something every single day. This is your practice. If you want to write prose, you need to write it in the same places, with the same tools, and, especially, the same feelings. The reason many literary fiction writers have such unique and mesmerizing styles of prose is because that’s the only way they can get that kind of expression out of themselves — they have spent years writing the same three hundred words every day. That sort of stubborn consistency will not just influence your prose habits, but your entire view of writing and also of yourself. Finding your style, your process, and your rhythm and building them into your daily life will be more comfortable than you ever could have imagined. That pace will build a motor in your fingers, and you’ll find yourself making more and more substantial progress towards a draft that both people and your own heart can relate and connect.

Research what you don’t know

If you’ve ever had the experience of seeing someone drive a car on a road close to yours and wondered to yourself, “What would it be like to drive one of those things?” only to later find yourself behind the wheel of one, you know that you never can truly know anything until you directly experience it. The same holds true for writing. So what should you write about, even if you are a middle-aged parent of five, or an IT worker from India’s Andhra Pradesh state? Write about what you know, of course! First, dig deep. Don’t just imitate examples of prose you’ve read, or personas that you’ve observed. Look inside and think, feel, and experience. Only then will you know how to write prose to make yourself happier, healthier, and better at the art of living.

Just because you’re writing about something you know doesn’t mean you should hold back! Get as detailed as your imagination will allow. If you’re writing from life experience, or the lives of your characters, write as realistically as possible, and take the time to know the every detail of the daily routines that you want to include, or if you’re writing about a future society, or a hypothetical novel set on another planet, get as creative as you can to give your audience an immersive experience. Prose springs from inward, as well as outward observation, so don’t hold back from fleshing out as many colorful details as possible.

Suspend all belief and play

Too often we write prose as though we are… well, writing prose. You might be using the appropriate words, but how you combine those words and what you say with them is just not very interesting. It’s okay to force yourself to leave behind your seriousness for a little bit and just play with words. Take a look at the way they sound when you string them together, think about the feelings each one carries with it, and pay attention to the feeling those lines create in your body. You are going to write a sentence, then go back and repeat it – but with different words. You could do this several times, listing all of the ways that you have defined a particular word. The goal here is to learn how to balance keeping your prose believable while making something with a little flair.

In order to keep your prose believable, you must do some research. That may sound obvious, but in order to create good prose, you do need to give the reader information that makes sense and lets them know where they are in the story. Once your research is complete, you can figure out what you are capable of creating. Maybe you’ll start with a different person’s voice and then change into a different time period. Try capturing the meaning of a word’s sound, or writing like the author of your favorite book. Find what makes your prose great, and try to emulate it. If you feel like you’re imitating, and you don’t like the results, you’re succeeding.

Know the difference between description and narrative

Description and narrative are two important pillars of your book, but they’re fundamentally different. You have to know what each does, and when to use each. Narrative is an active process. It takes a writer to tell a story, and that story has to hit the rooftops. Description, on the hand, is a reactive process. It allows characters and places to speak for themselves. Some descriptions are as short as a sentence, while others go on for over a page. But whenever you’re crafting a painting or creating a scene, let your reader see the action itself — don’t bog down your prose with the adjectives and adverbs that make up the scenery.

How do you know when it’s appropriate to use description? There are a few easy, tried-and-true methods to picking your descriptors. You can simply tie them to objects as you encounter them — any room that features an armchair will do a fine job of sitting out a description. If you need to describe something a bit out of the ordinary — like an odd group of people who like to wear black culottes — you can use description instead of narrative. Think of it this way — to describe is to write what you see and show narration is to write about the effect it has. If you need to describe the pants, Scott Pilgrim style, you use the language of description. Otherwise, the character is narrating.

Look for the big picture

One of the best framing mechanisms for finding the big picture is something called an outline, which can be either tub-thumping or subtle, depending on what you need. If you’re stuck on your voice, a one-page outline laying out the stakes of your work and the arc of character development can get you unstuck. If you’re just looking for a clean prose style, a half-page outline can remind you of the story’s most compelling beats. If you’re having problems pacing and keeping your plot on track, an outline can help you see the whole thing at once. The key here is to settle in to developing your big idea — your sense of why the story matters and what the ending should mean for the characters.

Write with rhythm

Like a good dancer will tell you, to be effective you have to know how to listen. Each piece of good writing is like a great beat. It holds together and makes the reader want to keep reading. If you want to sound good, you’ve got to bring rhythm into your prose. Rhyme and alliteration help you to shape your sentences with pacing and rhythm alike. This goes for poetry as well as prose in fiction.

“Show don’t tell” is an old writing axiom that’s still good advice. It never hurts to throw in a vivid description that helps the reader paint a picture of the scene. “Show” can equal evocative words or showy metaphors. Whatever you do, never be afraid to break the meter to get a particularly moving line. Writers from Poe to Nabokov have used unusual lines to break up their meter in order to emphasize the particular emotion they wanted to communicate.

If you want to write prose, be relentless. Make yourself a word masterpiece by studying pros and investigating the nuances of language. Feed your language obsession books, reads, magazines, and exposure to poetry. Reading out loud also helps unveil mistakes and allows you to “hear” the prose you’ve so carefully crafted. Soon, you too can master science fiction prose, mystical prose, and prose that you and your cat will enjoy.

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