Welcome to this nifty guide on how to write great prose. Below, we’ll take a look at the two main schools of thought, before exploring ways for you to exploit to sharpen your writing.
How To Write Prose
We begin this guide on how to write prose with a look at two styles or approaches. These forms of prose tend to dominate:
- Clear, concise prose, referred to as ‘Orwellian’, or the ‘clear pane of glass’, and;
- Florid, literary prose, referred to as the ‘stained glass window’.
First, we’ll have a look at each, before going on to discuss how you can achieve them.
George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language, set out what he thinks good prose ought to consist of, all the while attacking the political system for the destruction of good writing practices. He was very much against the over-complication of language, which at the time (1946), was the direction politics was taking, and unfortunately still takes today, but that’s a whole other topic.
Orwell believed prose should be like looking through a clear pane of glass at the story unfolding on the other side. The writing should be invisible, drawing as little attention to itself as possible. The reader shouldn’t have to stop to re-read a sentence due to poor construction or stumble over a word used in the wrong way.
Words should be chosen because of their meaning, and to make them clearer, images or idioms, such as metaphors and similes, should be conjured. He encouraged the use of ‘newly invented metaphors’ which “assists thought by evoking a visual image”. Orwell encouraged writers to use the fewest and shortest words that will express the meaning you want. “Let the meaning choose the word.” If you can’t explain something in short, simple terms, you don’t understand it.
A change in the language provoked Orwell to write his essay. Pretentious diction, as he called it—words such as phenomenon, element, objective, eliminate and liquidate—is used to dress up simple statements. He blamed politics for this, and how politicians adopt hollow words and phrases, mechanically repeating them over and over until they become meaningless. I’m sure we can all agree we’re fed up of hearing such phrases. Orwell used ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ as an example, and more recently we’ve seen Theresa May butcher the phrase ‘strong and stable’. I’m sure Trump has a few, yes he does. These phrases are vague and bland and do not evoke any imagery, and if you’re a writer, they’re things you ought to avoid.
Orwell provided six rules to remember when writing prose:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
Never use a long word where a short one will do;
If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out;
Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active;
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent;
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So in summary, Orwellian prose is that which is short, simple and crucially, understandable. And if you’re looking for a simple and effective method of how to write prose, here it is.
The stained glass window
So we have our clear pane of glass, what then is the stained glass window?
You can still see the story on the other side, but the stained glass is colouring it in interesting ways. Language and structure is florid and creative. It’s used more in fancy literary fiction, and requires a mastery of language to pull off. Brandon Sanderson refers to it as the artist’s style of prose, whereas Orwellian prose he regards as the craftsman’s style.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘purple prose’. This is an attempt at creating a stained glass window, but the description and structure is poor.
A blend of the clear pane and stained pane can work well. Tolkien often adopted this, particularly with his descriptions, and other writers, Sanderson and David Gemmell to name but two, like to start chapters in a florid way before transitioning into the clear pane. It depends on the scene. In fight scenes, for example, simple language is best adopted so the reader’s flow isn’t disrupted. When describing places, people or settings colourful language works well to liven up what would otherwise be quite mundane passages.
Here’s a five minute bit from a Brandon Sanderson lecture, complete with a dubious hat, on Orwellian prose.
My personal preference is toward Orwellian prose. Writing should be clear and accessible to all. Surely as writers, that’s what we want—to have our stories read and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Having spent years working as a lawyer I know it’s not the case, and Orwell’s fears back in 1946 continue to materialise. In the end, I regarded my role as a lawyer as more of a translator of legal jargon. Writing should not be this way. So how do you achieve a clear pane of glass?
How to achieve clear language
So far in this guide on how to write prose, we’ve looked at the different approaches. Now we’re looking at the practical side of things—how we actually write great prose. Here are a few tips to help you achieve that Orwellian style of writing:
- Resist the temptation to get fancy. We all do it. Only the other day I was going through a story of mine with a friend. I’d written the phrase “after thrice repeating the words,” and he pulled me up on it, and rightly so. “Why not just say ‘after the third time’?” he asked. Simpler, more effective.
- Make good use of nouns and verbs, and refrain from indulging in adjectives and adverbs. Check out last week’s guide which looks at the impact too many adjectives and adverbs can have on your writing.
- Show v Tell. This has cropped up a few times on the blog over the past few weeks, and for good reason. Telling the reader how a character feels is boring! Show it!
- Behead the passive voice. Unsure what this is? Check out my guide here. Seek to use active verbs. Here’s a nifty list to help you out.
- Try poetry and flash fiction. These facets of the craft will teach you the importance of each and every word. You’ll learn the power a single word can have, how it can provoke images, emotions or memories in the reader’s mind.
- Cut the shite out. No, I don’t mean drugs. Remove unnecessary words that balloon sentences. Take an example:
He quickly crossed to the opposite side of the road.
He crossed the road.
Remember Orwell’s rule: if you can cut out a word, do it. When it comes to prose, less is more.
- Be specific and concrete. Seek to conjure vivid images and avoid vague phrases. Orwell provides a wonderful example from the book Ecclesiastes of how specificity can create vivid images:
“… The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet the bread to the wise, nor yet the riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill …”
- Pay attention to sentence structure, a.k.a. syntax. Sentences of a similar structure disrupt the flow and creates an awful rhythm. Short sentences increase the pace as well as tension, are effective at hitting home points, or signalling a change in tone. A short sentence I’d say is one less than half a line. Be warned: do not overuse them. A short sentence packs a punch, and you don’t want to bludgeon your reader. For an example of short sentences used well, check out Anna Smith Spark’s debut novel The Court of Broken Knives. Then come the medium-length sentences—one to two lines—which keeps the pace at a steady level. Anything over two lines and I’d say that’s a pretty long sentence. Long sentences are useful for pieces of description, slowing the pace or reducing tension. You can even be clever and use them to throw the reader off-guard. Watch out for your use of commas too and keep an eye on syllables. Read your work aloud to reveal these problems.
- Trust your reader. At some stage, we’ve all been guilty of holding the reader’s hand. Seek to create intrigue by withholding details.
- Avoid clichés. It cheapens your writing and gives the reader the impression of laziness.
- When constructing a sentence, Orwell states that a scrupulous writer ought to ask these questions:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom (a group of words that establish a meaning that a single word cannot) will make it clearer?
Is the image/idiom fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
It may be a little arduous to ask yourself these questions when writing every sentence, but when it comes to editing they should certainly enter your mind.
Thank you for reading this guide on how to write prose. Hopefully, this post has shed light on the mysteries of prose and how you can achieve that clear, readable style. If you’d like more help with your writing or would like to connect with like-minded writers, why not join my online writing group by clicking the button below?