The goal of being a writer is pretty simple: Transcribe ideas from Point A (Your brain) to Point B (The Blank Page – eek!). Of course that’s stripping it down to its bare bones. (Sorry all bards and minstrels that just rolled over in your graves.)
So now the magical question, how do you accomplish this goal? There’s not one thing that makes a writer successful. Yet, it’s safe to say prose is the vehicle in which our writing is delivered and plays a large part in success or failure. For some, it may even be the deciding factor between acceptance and rejection.
Let’s assume your premise is breathtaking and powerful, the Queen of England as a passenger in your vehicle of prose, so to speak. But, if she’s delivered in a 1990 Chevy Lumina (one of the most hideous cars of all time), there won’t be adoring fans falling over themselves to greet you. You need your prose to be a spectacular Tesla Model S, a dazzling Lamborghini Aventador, a killer Porsche Spyder!
Prose is a skill in which we convey our story through language in a creative and enticing way. So, if you’ve been rejected from agents or publishers based on your prose, that’s actually a good sign. It says nothing about you as a writer other than you have not developed the craft as much as others. It says nothing of your creativity, zest or talent for writing as a passion. Prose is a skill that can be learned. All you need to do is study. Isn’t that great news?
There’s one catch, you first have to accept you’re less than awesome.
Today’s focus: Know the difference between Unique Style and Poor Prose
This is the top amateur writer mistake when it comes to prose. Let’s use a fictional character as an example.
Jane has been writing all her life as a hobby, but finally wants to take it seriously. She’s written a novel and the second she types out “THE END” in her word document, she gives her cat a high-five, prints it out at Office Max and she sends it off to a publisher. Three months later it comes back with one sentence of feedback: “Improve your Prose.”
She’s baffled, partly because she doesn’t even know what prose means. So she looks it up on google.
“Prose: written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure.”
She thinks to herself, “What the heck does that mean? Gosh, I don’t know anything… I know! I’ll join a writer’s critique group. They’ll be able to help me.”
Jane heads to her first meeting at her local bookstore. She shows the rejection letter and they knowingly nod and say, “Ah, the first heartbreak hurts the worst, eh? But let’s have a look here. Prose. Hmm. By definition, prose means the act of writing anything that’s not poetry. But if a publisher tells you to improve your prose, then you just need to advance your writing skill.”
It sounds like a vague answer, doesn’t it? That’s because prose is one single word that encompasses all of the millions of possible ways sentences/descriptions/scenes/paragraphs/chapters/…/etc! could be structured and described. It is one of the most underestimated skills a writer has in their toolbox. If you have mastered prose, then you have mastered the skill it takes to convey your story.
But sadly… Jane doesn’t understand that. She shrugs off the mumbo-jumbo and invents her own reasoning. Maybe the editor didn’t read far enough… Surely he would have liked Chapter 6 where there’s an interesting twist? Maybe he’s a sexist and didn’t like a female heroine? Yes! That must be it.
So, Jane offers her first chapter. She’s sure that this time, everyone will get how great her story is.
The writing group eases her into a short list of amateur prose mistakes they can already spot. “Well, Jane. Since the editor thought you needed to work on your prose, let’s start with this… You see how you wrote three sentences in a row that all started with ‘I’? Try to rephrase it without doing that. When telling the story in first person, it’s an easy mistake to make. Everybody does it on their first try.”
Jane frowns, and doesn’t feel that should matter. It’s about the story, not if she started a sentence with “I”. I mean, it’s first person! Of course sentences will start with “I”!
But she nods, hoping they think she’s taking their advice. She wants to know why her story isn’t exciting for them. It’s got to be the plot, right?
Then, another member points something out. “You keep repeating the same words. Maybe try to vary it up a bit?”
What… Because I wrote “She picked up the raincoat before running out into the rain”? How else am I supposed to write it? It’s a rain coat… for the rain.
“What about this? You have quite a few run on sentences. You use commas instead of periods. And you’re using such flamboyant words. Why not keep it simple?”
Jane jolts to her feet as she presses the pages to her chest. “That’s my style. It’s how I write. And if you don’t like it, then that’s your opinion. One which I don’t agree with.” Jane thinks that no one is “getting her” and rushes out, never to speak to such close-minded writers again.
And that’s why… you’ve never heard of Jane.
Bottom line, when someone defensively says their way of writing is their style, then that usually means they’re making an excuse for poor prose. It also means they don’t intend to change, which is as good as saying they have no plans to be taken seriously as a writer. “You just don’t get me.” or “It’s unique.” Yeah sure, the hand painting I did when I was two was pretty unique, but you’re not going to see that reprinted and sold to thousands as a world famous piece of art.
I know it’s a hard pill to swallow. We’ve all been there. And it can be confusing when friends or family tell us how impressive our writing is to them. But they’re not editors… they’re people who love you. While it’s fine to try family and friends for a quick beta read, by no means should they be considered the sole expert on good writing unless they are professionally in the field. Join a writer’s critique group, go to a writing workshop, or pitch your work to publisher contests where the reward is feedback or critiques. You’ll find out where you truly stand.
Prose is just like any other skill. There are techniques to follow and common pitfalls to avoid. I hope you’ll join me as we study the world of prose together. But first, in order to address these issues, we must understand prose and approach it with an open mind. That’s why I’ve dedicated an entire post to this very thing. We can’t fix what we won’t admit is broken, nor what we don’t truly understand.
This concludes the first post in the Journey of Prose series. If you’re ready to go tackle the world of prose, stay tuned or join our mailing list. More to come!