Effective Prose

Writing prose is easy. Writing well-crafted prose isn’t.  It’s not just about having the raw talent to write, because although it helps, there are still skills and technicalities to learn. In essence, writing is about the balance of talent, capability, learned skills and the love of the written word.

There are two literary structures for creative writing: prose and verse. The latter is a vital ingredient in poems, and rhythm plays a part in that for verse to work. The same is true for prose. Sentences need rhythm to work. Poems keep to a metrical structure, and don’t necessarily have to rhyme. Prose can also work with metrical structure to a certain degree because conventional rules don’t bind effective prose writing, since the act of writing is subjective and integral to the author’s own style. As already pointed out, style and voice is as individual as a fingerprint.

There are several ways to bring prose to life:

• Choice of words, phrases and sentences
• Rhythm and Pace of description
• Metrical verse and patterns
• Alliteration
• Repetition
• Parallelism

The choice of words is vital to your sentences. How do you pick one word over another? That depends on the tone and atmosphere of the narrative and what you want to say. The use of vowels creates soft words, whereas consonants are sharper by contrast. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato words with softer words to provide variation and heighten pace.  Which words you choose and in what order can make a difference to the clarity of the overall sentence structure.  It's wise to be choosy.

Rhythm defines the tempo of your narrative. If the narrative were a car travelling at 40mph from beginning to end, then it would make for a boring, long-winded journey. If it stops, then starts, then rushes madly at breakneck speed, then slows, then speeds away again, then slows...then that kind of car ride will be an exciting ride. This is exactly how your prose should be. The varying pace of the narrative makes for an enjoyable read.

Metrical verse and patterns refers to the pattern of prosody. Prose can have a poetic nuance, with the same metrical form as poetry to stress certain syllables within the words. For instance: The rain subdued his mood and the descending darkness made him brood...

Alliteration, particularly in prose, refers to the repetition of initial sounds in neighbouring words, for instance: ‘A droplet descended the door...’ or ‘the wind whipped the flowers wide across the meadow...’

Notice  how the words begin with the same letter and are close together within the sentence.  This is simple alliteration.   This is another way of livening up the narrative to provide inflection. It’s not something writers think about too often, and when reading back your work you might find you’ve alliterated without realising. Again, it’s a good way of adding dimension to your narrative.

Repetition can be a useful tool in writing. Repeating certain words throughout the story gives purpose, cadence and rhythm to the narrative and is something the reader will notice very quickly, particularly when used in conjunction with symbolism. (More on symbolism next week). Of course, it could be any word or phrase that you could repeat which could strike a chord with your reader.  It's a way of referring the reader back to the main thrust of the story. 

Parallelism is about constructing parallel sentences. Two or three such consecutive sentences can add impact and a sense of rhythm. This is when parallel sentences can be effective by adding a sense of depth to your prose.

Alex knew what they were thinking. She was perceptive. She was smart. She was intuitive. She knew the brooding expressions of their faces meant something.’

She was perceptive, she was smart, she was intuitive. All three sentences are parallel and when you read them, it intones a sense of rhythm.

If I’d written the sentences differently, the outcome would not be as effective: ‘Alex knew what they were thinking. She was perceptive. She was smart and she thought about putting the kettle on...’ The parallel structure is lost in this second example and it doesn’t give the same intonation and tempo as the first one.

The effect of the words on the ear is rather like a tune. It’s fluid, it ebbs and flows, it pauses in the right places and it quickens and slows.  See what I've done there?  That very sentence is rhythmic prose. By using the words fluid...ebbs...flows...pauses...quickens...slows, I've given the sentence a rhythmic quality and when you read it it's easy on the inner ear, it has a distinct metrical pattern and a careful balance of words within the sentence.

Although not a prerequisite, it’s always good to include some of these strategies within your narrative and especially in description. Without them, you’ll end up with an indistinct piece of writing that neither excites nor has any depth.

Writing well-crafted prose entails skilful handling of words, sentences and paragraphs that have rhythm, pace, alliteration, intonation, clauses and poetic nuance. It’s the difference between a reader enjoying what you’ve written, or skipping over it in favour of something else.

Next week: Metaphor & symbolism


  1. Thank you for your post. I try and totally avoid the use of "was". Until I tried it, I never really believed that it "was" so hard to omit the use of such a simple word from a story. The use of the word also implies a passive sentence, so thanks for making me not seem odd in my quest to remove the word from my writing.

    1. Once you start omitting most usage, you won't miss it and your writing will be much better for it.


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