As a creative writing teacher, a common question I get asked is “what is prose writing?” The term prose simply refers to written or spoken language. In the context of books and authors, it describes a style of writing, distinct from poetry or metrics.
But crucially for writers, how do we improve our prose when writing? How can we create vivid descriptions that draw readers deeper into our story and world?
Below, we’ll explain the types of prose and prose style, focusing on the two main approaches—Orwellian prose, also known as the clear pane of glass, and the stained glass window, which is more of a florid approach.
As well as looking at these two methods of writing prose, we’ll also take a look at ways you can improve your writing.
Choose A Chapter
- What Is Prose Writing?
- How To Write Prose
- Orwellian Prose Writing
- Florid Prose: The Stained Glass Window
- What Is Heroic Prose?
- How To Achieve Clear Prose
- How To Get Better At Writing Prose
- More Resources On Writing Prose
- What Is Prose Writing? – FAQs
- Join An Online Writing Community
So what does prose mean exactly? It’s a form of language that carries no formal structure. How we think, speak and write would be described as prose. When we write it, we apply a grammatical structure. This is different to poetry, which applies a rhythmic structure.
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. By the end, you’ll have all the answers you need.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “good prose is like a window pane” and wanted to know the meaning behind it, here it is.
George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language, set out what he thinks good prose writing ought to consist of, all the while attacking the political system for the destruction of good writing practices. Orwell 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 writing which is short, simple and crucially, understandable. And if you’re looking for a simple and effective method of how to write good prose, this is it.
They’re great guidelines to test out with short stories. With that type of narrative writing you need to make every word count, so they’re a great way to get used to them.
When we explore answers to the question, what is prose writing, one approach we inevitably turn to is the stained glass window—the antithesis to Orwell’s clear pane method.
With a stained glass window approach, you can still see the story on the other side, but the stained glass is colouring it in interesting ways. Language and structure are florid and creative. And it also tt tends to lean more heavily on the side of descriptive writing.
It’s used more in 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 are poor, rendering the prose incomprehensible.
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. 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?
Heroic prose is a literary style characterized by elevated and dignified language. It’s often used to recount tales of heroism, valor, and epic adventures.
Unlike traditional poetic forms such as epic poetry, which utilizes meter and rhyme, heroic prose relies on the narrative power of prose to convey heroic deeds and grand narratives.
The roots of heroic prose can be traced back to ancient epics, such as the Homeric poems of ancient Greece, where the exploits of legendary heroes like Achilles and Odysseus were conveyed in poetic form. Beowulf and Sir Gawain And The Green Knight are two other examples of epic poems written in heroic prose.
However, as literature evolved, particularly during the medieval and Renaissance periods, there emerged a trend to recount heroic stories in a more straightforward, prose format.
One notable example of heroic prose is Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” a compilation of Arthurian legends written in the 15th century. Malory used prose to narrate the chivalric exploits of King Arthur and his knights, presenting the tales in a more accessible and expansive manner than traditional poetic forms would allow.
Heroic prose is characterized by its grandeur, moral undertones, and a focus on the virtues of the heroic characters. The prose style aims to evoke a sense of awe and admiration for the heroic deeds described within the narrative.
It all helps to capture the timeless essence of heroism and to convey narratives that inspire and elevate the human spirit.
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 my 7 nifty editing tips which look at the impact too many adjectives and adverbs can have on your writing.
- Show don’t tell examples. 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. Seek to use active verbs. But this can be harder than it looks. Check out my full guide to passive voice here.
- Use effective dialogue – you can find dialogue writing examples here
- 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 out extraneous words. Remove unnecessary words that balloon sentences. Let’s look at some prose writing examples:
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. That’s a good guideline to remember.
- 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 and be mindful of tropes. 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?
We’ve covered a few different approaches above. Hopefully, you’ve found some alignment to one or the other, or perhaps a mix of both. You may now be wondering how to get better at writing prose. Luckily, there are some practical tips that you can follow which, in time and with persistence and perseverance, will help you see positive results:
- Broaden your reading – Widening your reading material is an effective way to improve your writing. Choose books, articles, and essays from a variety of genres and styles to learn from the best.
- Regularly practice writing – Writing is a skill that requires constant practice to improve. Dedicate a few minutes each day to writing, or as much time as you can allow. The more the better.
- Master grammar and style – A strong foundation in grammar, syntax, and punctuation is essential for good writing. Invest time in learning the rules of language and applying them.
- Write with intention – Each piece of writing should have a clear purpose, theme or message. Keep your audience in mind and what you want to communicate to them, and tailor your prose accordingly.
- Edit relentlessly – Editing is a vital aspect of producing high-quality writing. After completing a draft, scrutinize it thoroughly and eliminate any extraneous or irrelevant material.
- Try new approaches – Don’t be afraid to experiment with different writing styles, techniques, and genres. Trying new things can help you discover what works best for you.
- Seek feedback – Request feedback from other writers or trusted readers to help you improve your writing. Evaluate the feedback and use it constructively to enhance your writing. You can join our writing community if you’re looking to find new people to work with.
I’ve included a few other materials for you to further your reading.
Check out this English literature writing guide by the University of Edinburgh
If you’d like to study creative writing, check out this writing course offered by the University of East Anglia. If you’d like more resources like this, you can also check out my online writing classes.
A great way to improve your prose is by writing short stories. Head here for a complete guide
Prose relates to ordinary everyday speech, so it’s arguably easier to write than poetry. However, many writers fall into the trap of writing ‘purple prose’, which is easy to write but not very good to read.
Prose carries with it no formal or set structure. It does, however, apply the general principles of grammar. It often reflects common or conversational speech.
Prose means the ordinary language that’s spoken or written. It is often distinguished from poetry due to its lack of a rhythmic structure.
In writing, prose relates to any form of written work in which the general rules of grammar and structure are followed. This is distinct from poetry, which follows a more rhythmic structure.
In the context of writing, prose refers to words assembled in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise describe as poetry or non-rthymic.
Written in prose simply means that a piece of text has been written down in a non-rhythmic way.
There are two main types of prose style—George Orwell’s the clear pane of glass, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the stained glass window. Orwell believed in clear and simple language. The stained glass window, on the other hand, opts for a more florid style.
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 community. There are hundreds of us all sharing advice, tips, calls for submissions, and helping each other out with our stories. We congregate on Facebook and Discord. To join, just click below.
If you need any more help answering the question, what is prose writing, get in contact.
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