One of the big things that writers struggle to improve in their work is the quality of their prose. The difficulty with a phrase like ‘prose’ is it means a huge number of different things, from flow and register, to vocabulary choice and sentence structure, and then still to less tangible things like ‘voice’ and ‘beauty’.
It can be hard to identify what makes a particular piece of prose aesthetically beautiful, just as it is often difficult to explain why a particular piece of art or music elicits that response. In many ways, great prose is the most artistic part of the genre, defying attempts to tie it down to strict rules or structures.
Still, I like a challenge, so in this post I’m going to be writing about how to improve your prose and what great prose looks like. I will not be able to cover everything, or fix your prose in a simple post.
In the first section, I will provide a range of examples and try to examine the features that helps make the prose aesthetically pleasing.
The goal is to identify some features that help tie down that most elusive of beasts: beautiful writing.
In the second section, I will explore techniques and exercises you can use to help improve your own prose with the below ideas in mind.
I truly believe that one of the essential building blocks of great prose is an extremely solid understanding of English grammar and syntax - specifically sentence construction. I say this mainly because the nuts and bolts of sentence construction is often not explicitly taught in schools, or if it is then it is often forgotten later in life.
If you are not completely certain, I would take some time to revise your understanding of word types, passive and active verb construction, nominalisation, main clauses, dependent clauses and construction of simple, compound and complex sentences, and punctuation usage (like how you use commas, semi-colons, dashes, and colons).
The information about all of these things can be easily found on the internet and is worth some of your writing time to consider and learn these.
Being very comfortable with how these all work is a necessary precursor to being able to write beautiful prose. A lot of great prose breaks these grammatical rules, but you really need to know them before you can break them.
I would strongly recommend reading Strunk's Elements of Style as a great starting point if you feel this is an area that needs work.
Variety is key in prose. Many of you will have seen Gary Provost’s oft-stated passage about sentence length, but it bears repeating here:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
This fantastic example highlights the importance of variety, but variety does not just apply to sentence length. It applies to paragraph length, word choice and tone. You want to aim to change these up over the course of your writing. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “consistency should be reserved for rice pudding.”
Here's a task for you: For the rest of the post, look at all the examples I use and consider how the reader has used variation to enhance the beauty of their prose.
3. Sensory Description - Breadth and Depth
Remember to include a range of sensory description in your prose. There is a tendency for novice writers to only describe what the narrator would see, but not what they would feel, smell, hear, or taste. However, we do not experience the world this way and the most immersive prose will deal with all of it. Let’s look at a couple examples.
The first is from the excellent The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (or The Golden Compass if you’re American):
‘One morning there was a different smell in the air, and the ship was moving oddly, with a brisker rocking from side to side instead of the plunging and soaring. Lyra was on deck a minute after she woke up, gazing greedily at the land: such a strange sight, after all that water, for though they had only been at sea a few days, Lyra felt as if they’d been on the ocean for months. Directly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came land smells too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.
Seals frisked around the ship, showing their clown-faces above the water before sinking back without a splash. The wind that lifted spray off the white-capped waves was monstrously cold, and searched out every gap in Lyra’s wolfskin.’
As you can see here, Pullman describes a range of different senses. More importantly, he layers them. Another trap to fall into is to assume there is only one smell or sound in a setting, but, just like sight, there is a full range of these senses that contradict and compliment each other.
Look at the way Pullman describes smell. He layers different smells on top of each other, ‘fish’, ‘land smells’ ‘pine-resin and earth’ and something ‘animal and musky’ and again something else ‘cold and blank and wild’. Together they build to create what he describes as ‘the smell of the North.’
Note also here that other senses, like smell, can be dealt with in the same kind of metaphorical way as you would with sight. You don’t always need to describe a specific smell, like ‘burning wood’ or ‘spiced apples’. You can just as easily, and sometimes more effectively, use feelings. Pullman does this when he describes one of the smells as ‘cold and blank and wild.’ It is hard to tie down exactly specifically what this smell is, but personally, I can imagine it.
This act of layering smells, or other senses, can also be used to set them up in contradiction of each other, or to explore other ideas.
A great example can be found in the opening of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, which deals with sound in similarly complex and layered way.
'It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.
Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.
The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.
The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.
The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.'
Once again, we get a complex and interesting layering of sounds (or silence) just like Pullman did with smells.
Here's a final example that starts to merge and layer them together. You start to get what I consider to be really aesthetically beautiful prose. This is from Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a fantastically written Man Booker prize-winning novel.
‘The storm was borne on greenish winds. It began as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced, and when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury. The seething deck, the strange whip of light and shadows cast by the sails that snapped and strained above it, the palpable fear of the sailors as they fought to hold the barque on her course - it was the stuff of nightmare, and Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the goldfields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself.’
In this extract, Catton describes a storm by giving us the already sickly, nauseating feeling of ‘greenish winds’, followed by a ‘coppery taste’, then a feeling with ‘metallic ache’. This is compiled with the sight of ‘darkened’ and ‘advanced’ clouds and, finally, the sense of touch again as the storm hits with a ‘flat hand of senseless fury.’
And this is all in a couple of sentences. We then get more layered senses - the ‘strange whip of light’, in contrast to the only other sight description we have which is ‘darkened’ and then the sounds of ‘snapped’ and ‘strained’. It continues masterfully until we end with the fearful personification of the boat as some kind of self-flagellating woman, willing the storm onto herself.
Layered and complex sensory description is a key tool in the writer’s handbook. Go through the descriptions of some of the most important events in your novel - are you layering the sense like these authors are?
While on the topic of description, it is important to think about contrast. All of the examples above offer some sense of contrast in their description. By this I mean, they offer up juxtaposing images to highlight the power of them.
Imagine it like a painting: if you want a lighter colour to stand out, surround it with a darker colour so that it becomes clearer (or vice versa). This is very much the idea of a frame.
In the Catton example, the ‘clouds darkened’ contrasts with the ‘whip of light’, and so both the storm and the lightning are rendered darker and brighter respectively. In the Rothfuss example, the entire piece is contrasting one ‘silence’ against two others. If Kvothe’s silence was described on its own, it would lack all the depth that the contrast brings.
These juxtapositions can happen on a larger paragraph level or on a smaller sentence level, but if you want your images and ideas to stand out, try contrasting them against something else.
Part of what makes excellent prose is the structure of it, as well. Beautiful prose has a structure that is well thought out, rather than just a building of one idea onto the next.
Think about Rothfuss’s passage above - it has a clear structure of three parts that is set up at the beginning with an introduction, almost like an essay, then each topic is treated and the final conclusion that it all leads to is the character.
Two nice ways to think about prose structure are circularity and extended metaphors.
Circular prose begins and ends with the same idea, exploring it in more detail in between. The same line might frame the piece and add it extra weight. Similarly, extended metaphors are metaphors that build and layer over time, almost like the senses I discussed before. To return to something we’ve already seen, Rothfuss does this by using the silence as an extended metaphor for Kvothe’s haunting loneliness.
Both of these ideas can be seen in the following example: a wonderful piece by Richard Brautigan, entitled 'I was trying to describe you to someone.'
‘I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.
I couldn’t say “Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she’s not a movie star…”
I couldn’t say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.
I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or 42, somewhere in there. I think I was seven, or eight, or six.
It was a movie about rural electrification, a perfect 1930’s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids. The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by at night, for sewing and reading, and they didn’t have any appliances like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn’t listen to the radio. They built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.
There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time.
Then the movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life. Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.
It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to the Star Spangled Banner, or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt, or hearing him on the radio “… the President of the United States… “
I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio….
And that’s how you look to me.’
As well as a lovely use of extended metaphor, the circularity of beginning and ending with the focus on the ‘you’, the woman he is talking about, is what gives this piece so much of its beauty. It pulls it back down to the ground, away from the extended and almost rambling dream-like metaphor he is exploring.
Consider how Brautigan, in the example above, manages to use a circular structure in his prose to lend so much extra weight to a simple phrase: “and that’s how you look to me.” Because it is touched upon at the start with, “I was trying to describe you to someone” the last line has much more symbolic weight.
One way to think about the structure of your prose is to look at it as extracts, or individuals paragraphs, then consider what the first and last lines are. Do they reflect each other? Do they build upon each other? Is there some sense of growth?
Another aspect to focus on that is essential to writing compelling prose is the level of focus in the scene. In order to understand this, you need to know what your narrative lens is. The closer your narrative lens, the tighter your focus.
By narrative lens, we mean the vehicle through which you tell the story. In order of ever focusing narrative lenses, we have:
There is a reason many writers of sprawling epics like to go for 3rd person limited, as it gives them the freedom to have a close narrative lens but also a range of characters. Similarly, most literary fiction tends to be 1st person, because it is much more personal. Very few writers regularly use 3rd person omniscient these days.
So if you are writing in 3rd limited or 1st, you need to be sure that what you are describing is what your focus character or narrator is interested in. In other words, if you see a mountain, you are not describing the mountain to your reader, you are describing how your character would perceive a mountain.
This is quite straightforward - what I want to do is take it further and talk about what this means for focus. Often in big important scenes, writers have the tendency to forget what is important to characters. We need to remember what humanises characters and it is the small things. These deserve our focus. Raymond Chandler summed it up wonderfully when he wrote this:
‘A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they care very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paperclip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip just kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as he fell.’
Great focus in prose isn’t about telling the action, or all the details. It is about knowing what the character would focus on and making that the emotional hook or anchor in the scene. Let’s look at another piece of prose from Catton’s The Luminaries. For some context, our character Moody has stumbled onto a bizarre conspiracy and there is clearly something illicit going. But despite the fact that we, as a reader, are very interested in this, Catton recognises that Moody is enraptured by other things:
‘But Moody was not listening. He had forgotten, for a moment, the creeping ash of his cigar, and the warm brandy pooling in the bottom of his glass. He had forgotten that he was here, in a hotel smoking room, in a town not five years built, at the end of the world. His mind had slipped, and returned to it: the bloody cravat, the clutching silver hand, the name, gasped out of the darkness, again and again, Magdalena, Magdalena, Magdalena. The scene came back to him all in a snatch, unbidden, like a shadow passing coldly over the face of the sun.’
Note Catton’s use of sensory description, which we discussed earlier, is also very strong here. The focus of the scene expands outwards and away from what is actually going on, and instead flits to what is really on our character’s mind. This is all that concerns him, and, with a tight narrative lens, this should be all that concerns the reader.
Great prose considers and employs the following:
How To Improve Your Prose
These analyses may make sense to you, but I’m sure you are thinking, as I often do: okay fine, but I never seem to be able to write like that. How can I improve my prose?
The truth is that it is practice, just like all writing, but this stands particularly true for the quality of your prose. The more you read and the more you write, the better your prose will become. It is very much like learning an instrument in that way.
However, like learning an instrument, there are clearly some techniques that you can practice and some exercises in order to make that process more effective.
Read authors who are noted for their excellent prose. You are more likely to find this in literary fiction than in other genres, but that doesn't always hold true. Look for prize winners - Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, etc.
My personal suggestions include the following: Eleanor Catton, Donna Tartt, Richard Flanagan, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Oscar Wilde, Ray Bradbury and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
For those looking for beautiful prose in genre fiction, I'd encourage you to start with Ray Bradbury, N.K. Jemisin, and some elements of Patrick Rothfuss.
Read some of their work and let it just settle into you, but if you come across a particularly wonderful piece of prose, study it. Think about the above things and how their prose is constructed.
Take a piece of prose that you think is wonderfully written and literally write it out again. You can do this by hand or on the computer. The act of writing it yourself really helps your mind get into the rhythm and the style of the piece. If you have time, write out a couple of pieces.
Then immediately after, return to your own writing. You’ll notice yourself starting to apply some of the same styles and turns of phrase. Don’t worry at this point if it seems like imitation. It will be. But once you have imitated enough different writers, their styles will merge and change and slowly develop into something you can call your own voice.
Try to write the same passage of your own work in a variety of different styles. Once you become comfortable with different authors you love, try to match their styles without copying directly from them. This is a really good way to get your brain consciously thinking about the way you are using language.
Try writing the same scene from the POV of multiple characters. Change the narrative lens and focus and think about what each character would care about. Change the diction and voice as the character changes and the change the focus of the scene. Consider how something as basic as your sensory description would change as the point of view changes.
Place strict word restrictions on complicated scenes. Try to express the same concept or action in 100 words, then 50 words, then 500 words. How does it change the way you write? What things are you forced to explore or forget?
Read it aloud. The brain has a much better sense of rhythm when speaking than reading. You will notice when sentences sound clunky or when they flow. Change anything that doesn’t sound right.
Again, read, read, read. Thinking you can get good at writing with reading is like thinking you can be a great musician without listening to music, or a great filmmaker without watching any films. It’s absurd. In the words of Stephen King, “if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.