I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.
One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.
Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.
I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.
I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.
What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?
Maybe writing better prose isn’t a goal of yours. There are plenty of good authors who I would say don’t write very good prose. I think there’s always a space for writing better prose, but it’s not essential to good storytelling. I’d rather read an interesting story that’s poorly written than a beautiful composition with little substance.
As a writer who began leaning heavily on intuition, worked within the technical confines of grammar and syntax for far too long, and then tried to marry those aspects of my craft, I’ve always wanted to write good prose. Over the years, I’ve devised some practical approaches for improving it. Here are some of them I think any writer can implement relatively painlessly today.
1. Read your writing aloud. If, like me, you have any inclination toward musicality, hearing your words read aloud and internalized through your senses will provide a kind of musical experience that will have the same intensifying effect as the difference between thinking about your favorite song and listening to it. You’ll hear the places you get tripped up or start to run out of air. You’ll discover places your brain was subconsciously correcting. You’ll feel the rhythm. More than that, maybe you’ll hear a bit of alliteration you’d missed and think, “Oh boy, I like that,” or “ew, I don’t want to sound like that,” and adjust accordingly.
If nothing else, reading your writing aloud forces you to slow down and engage with your words in a physical manner. Your body will inform your writing in ways your mind can’t.
Bonus points: have a friend or family member read to you, or if you’re not ready to share your writing with someone else, the program in which you write may have a robot that can read to you. (Word does.)
2. Slow down and unpack. One of the most common misconceptions of writing I see in beginners is the idea that writing is linear. You put one word after another until you’re done, right? Not if you want to write good prose (and better understand your stories, but that’s another topic). Here’s George Saunders on this. And if you prefer to watch and listen, here.
Writing is revising is editing is writing. It’s all recursive. Forward momentum in writing is important, but if you believe forward momentum is writing a word and moving on, if your daily word count is everything to you, I think you should redefine progress in the context of writing. I think many readers and beginner writers would be stunned to learn how much time and energy their favorite writers spend on a sentence, a paragraph, a page. Granted, most of us have to balance our writing with work and families, and some writers have people to do this for them (*glares at Brandon Sanderson).
The point here is, if you want to write better prose, write that sentence…and then stop. Read it. Read it again. Tease at its corners. Pull on its threads. Unravel it. Find its heart, and then put that under a microscope. Reassemble everything not to put it back the way it was but to make it better. Like, Robocop. Yeah, your prose is like Robocop.
Warning: This can lead to a kind of perfection paralysis. Good prose isn’t perfect. It’s imperfect in a human way. If you find yourself slowing down to the point where you’re frustrated and just not having fun anymore, you can go a little faster. Ultimately, let your own enjoyment of the process guide you. If you’re not enjoying your writing, what’s the point?
3. Eschew bullshit. The first mistake I see new writers make when they try really hard to write better prose is they lose what really matters: heart and soul. When most of us begin, we lean heavily on our personality. It’s important to keep that, and it’s easy to muscle your personality out of your writing when you’re on a path to better prose. Remember, as Saunders says, writing prose is a conversation with the reader. Don’t espouse your brilliance into their pitiful little minds. Talk to them. Tell them a story. Writing better prose isn’t about scrubbing it of imperfection but making the imperfection interesting.
Stephen King doesn’t use any word he finds in a thesaurus, and while I’d argue a thesaurus can be an invaluable tool for a writer (especially those with particularly stunted vocabularies, like me), his point is good prose isn’t manufactured with elevated and obscure language. Certainly, use interesting words, but don’t use words no one’s said in a hundred years or words that are typically utilized in biological research. Use a thesaurus to remind you of words you know, but if it’s not in your vernacular, don’t use it.
Embrace your personality in your writing. Let it give your writing identity. You’re beautiful the way you are. You don’t need to change it to suit the world. In fact, maybe it’s this exact identity that will help you stand out.
4. Focus on your verbs. Verb choices are the keys to good prose. Sarah … what? When you’re starting to compose a sentence, the subject is usually a given (something I’ll cover in a moment), so the next important piece is what that subject does. Maybe she walks, but that’s kind of lame, right? That’s, like, the default verb choice for a bipedal being in motion. Maybe she saunters instead? Skips? Sashays? Levitates (*gasp)? You get it.
The point is choosing an interesting verb sets a strong foundation for your sentence because you’ll notice so much of the work you used to do to incorporate details will simply snap into place. Suddenly, you don’t need an adverb or an adjective because you used the right verb that communicated to the reader emotion or another kind of nuance. Unburdening your prose of adverbs and adjectives that would have been necessary with a weak verb opens all kinds of opportunities for you to explore other constructions that make your writing interesting.
Disclaimer: I don’t believe the road to Hell is paved in adverbs. I think adverbs can be great. I just think you should make sure you have a solid verb in place before you modify it.
5. Vary your structure. Frank did this. Frank did that. Frank felt this. Frank thought that. That’s very mechanical, right? I wrote above that the subject is usually a given. Now I’m suggesting you question it. What if the sentence isn’t about Frank picking up a rock but about the rock? Be wary of passive voice! Don’t write, “the rock was picked up by Frank.” Write, “The rock, heavy in Frank’s hand, bit his fingertips when he launched it at Sarah’s window. When it thudded on the carpet inside, she screamed.” Or, try an introductory phrase. “With the rock’s weight heavy in his mind, Frank grinned when he picked it up and found it more massive than he’d anticipated.” Try a dependent clause, but be wary of dangling and misplaced modifiers.
If these parts of speech terms seem foreign to you, perhaps freshen up your knowledge of them. I don’t mean to sound like an English nerd, but they’re your ingredients in a better prose cake. Bakers don’t just grab random stuff from the cabinet and hope the cake turns out all right. The odds of the cake being good are long if you’re arbitrarily combining ingredients. You shouldn’t do that with language.
6. Avoid repetition. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use the same words over and over again. In fact, doing so can sometimes ensure clarity and accessibility. What I’m saying is, if you take note of when you’re using the same words and see them as flags to stop you, you’ll suddenly be finding other ways to write what you’re thinking, and your prose will be more interesting.
Start with avoiding a word multiple times in the same sentence. Got that? Good. Then look for words used multiple times in the same paragraph. Mastered that? Then try to see if you can use a word only once per page.
Take this as far as it will go, but remember the earlier lesson on avoiding bullshit. Sometimes, using a word you just used a few lines ago is the most natural way to go, and I always choose natural prose over manufactured prose. Always. Unless the manufactured nature of the prose is the point. Maybe your narrator is an academic, say. Or a robot.
7. Keep abstractions in the abstract. Live in the physical world. Almost all new writers believe the key to sounding profound is to write about big, abstract ideas. That’s not true. The ideal prose uses very specific language as keys to unlock neural and emotional pathways to those big ideas in the reader’s minds. Don’t write, “Bastion was sad.” Write, “Bastion cradled the dead body of his mother and moaned toward the heavens.” Don’t write, “Eleanor was furious.” Write, “Eleanor’s fingernails bit into her palm as she made a fist and then punched a hole into the drywall.”
This one might get wrapped up in the classic “show, don’t tell” craft wisdom, but the trouble with that one is I think most beginner writers grossly misinterpret that wisdom as needing to write prose as if their story was a movie they’re simply transcribing. Maybe I’ll write more about that later, but sometimes, I like a good tell.
More to this point, the vagueness of an abstraction will never be as powerful as something physical, something concrete, because human beings experience the world through the physical while we rationalize in the abstract. The job of good prose isn’t to rationalize for the reader but to set them on the path toward rationalization. Punch your reader in the gut with an idea they can feel, and trust them to take that into the realm of the profound.
Yes, I just hit you. What was that experience like? What does it say about our relationship and what we’re doing here?
The Important Stuff
More than anything, just keep writing and pursuing the writing you want to read. Prose improves through iteration. That applies to a draft, but it also applies to the writer. Every time you write something, you improve. You become a new iteration, a new draft, of yourself. Keep reading. Keep writing. And, keep living. We neglect that one too often, and as writers, I think we neglect our lives to our peril. Living doesn’t necessarily help you with prose, but it’s vital to the ideas you express through prose. Those are arguably more important anyway. Good lines are quotable, but rarely is a work that’s anything less than profound worth quoting. If you’re writing sparkling prose but it doesn’t contain any heart and soul because you haven’t lived, it’s just fluff, pretty though it may be.
Finally, I don’t think these are the only ways to write better prose. There are many paths you can take, but the one immutable truth about whatever path you choose to achieve good prose is it’s long and requires work and a not-insubstantial amount of patience. I started this post discussing the idea that some people are more inclined toward some skills, but while good prose may be natural, the ability to write it isn’t. It’s something every writer has to work on, some more than others. Keep reading. Keep writing. You’ll get there.