Welcome to part 3 of my posts ‘In Defense of Prose,’ or as I like to call them ‘those blog posts I’ve been doing instead of editing my actual work’
For serious though check out the following links for great resources on the subject:
ShaelinWrites for videos on a variety of prosey (prosaic?) topics and beyond
Daniel David Wallace for an excellent freebie on sentences
David Michael Kaplin on writing prose with power and punch
So today I thought I’d round this topic off by actually talking about what makes good prose.
Before we begin I’d just like to add my usual disclaimer, I’m no expert, teacher or great authority. The purpose of my blog isn’t to peddle advice, but rather to explore topics because its the way I learn best (other than walking around in a dense day-dream ruminating on the subject).
I also realize that much of my discussion of the topic has been a little, well ethereal, as in rather than talking about stuff of concrete substance I’ve been defending the ideas of prose, I can’t promise to stop doing that but I am planning to try to touch on specifics in this post – again as above my plan isn’t to provide an exhaustive list of how to write good prose but to give the topic at least a rigorous shake and discuss.
What makes good prose?
There seems to be two schools of thought on this subject. One follows the idea of ‘invisible prose’ where the purpose of fictional words are to plug directly into a readers brain and hijack their imagination, thus the less said reader even notices the prose the better. The second posits that words can be quite beautiful in an of themselves and aims to impress with the quality of wordcraft before the reader.
One first brush these two thoughts seem completely incompatible, equal and opposite. However in all my study into good wordsmithing, it seems the same skills and techniques within writing can underlie both approaches. How? As best I can figure the elements of good prose provide a solid foundation by which can author can either create add an artistic flourish to their words, OR focus on creating a seamless expression of the content of the story.
What I’m trying to say is good writing achieves what it aims to achieve (small caveat, sometimes in art there is that weird phenomenon where an artist creates something that has a totally different impact to what is intended but is still considered excellent but we won’t go down that road today)
So finally, I’m going to dive into some of the objective ways that I think prose can be done well to support the author’s intentions:
What what? Aren’t writers supposed to be subtle? Isn’t ‘show don’t tell’ the most well-known advice out there? What about mystery, and isn’t writing supposed to be open to interpretation?
Yes, yes, yes and YES!
But hear me out. A good story will raise questions for a reader, but they’ll be compelling within story questions, who did it? What’s going to happen?
If a reader is asking questions like: what the heck did that mean? What does Esoteric mean? You’re started to lose them.
There’s nothing wrong with presenting ambiguous action within a story, but good prose is precise, even if the words mislead the reader (intentionally) there shouldn’t be a lack of clarity in what is being presented on the page.
There’s screes to be said on this subject I thoroughly recommend checking out the ‘Write Better Sentences’ link at the top of the post (and right there) on the subject, suffice to say some main points are: position the key action – i.e. what the subject does to the object – near the beginning of the sentence with as much clarity as possible and place content you want the reader to notice and remember at the end. for example (not of excellent writing but of the theory)
Hamish pushed Sandy to the ground, feeling mighty and strong, until he noticed the teacher watching
Hamish pushing Sandy is the subject and the object interaction, and the teacher watching is an important point placed at the end. David Wallace isn’t advocating for the same sentence structure to be used again and again, but rather how to intentionally organize words for effect.
If you look at the above example you may notice that I have a problem with this. Pointless filter’s like “feeling” and possibly even “he noticed” often fill up sentences with stuff that a reader will already know. For example “I watched Marie walk down the stairs one step at a time” might seem like it’s telling you what “I” did, but “Marie walked down the stairs one step at a time” already implies the narrator is watching because that’s what is being described but them.
Something I’m also terrible with is weasel words. I’m constantly putting adverbs, somewhats, seems, particularlys, and whatnot into my writing. Weasel words are called such because they tend to soften prose, essentially giving a writer plausible deniability “I said she seemed ugly” the problem being typically you want powerful clear messages, not a book that suggests a strong story to you.
Now I’m going to finish there, partly because I’m out of time, but also because I promised broad enough items that could support both invisible, and visible prose, is suspect both could evoke whole books on themselves, personally I aim more for the former and the actual specifics of the latter are somewhat beyond me (another reason to stop here) However I thoroughly believe that attention to detail on the prose/wordcraft level is vital for good writing and its a topic worth talking about.
What there other goals of prose that I’ve missed?
Do you prefer invisible or visible prose?
What did you think about the linked resources, helpful, distracting, non-helpful?