Writing beautiful prose is not something that every writer succeeds in at first. It usually takes a ton of deliberate practice!
Powerful prose often reads like poetry. The term “purple prose” refers to works that can be overly flowery. That’s not always a bad thing—many readers and writers love flowery prose. The author strikes a balance between beauty and readability in his work.
So how do you balance beautiful writing with deliberate, purposeful writing?
If you want to make your writing more beautiful, artistic, or unique, here are 7 ways to write beautiful prose.
1. Avoid or reinterpret clichés
Clichés are not always bad. In fact, they can be poignant, impressive phrases with a little reinterpretation.
There’s a reason new writers default to clichés—it’s easy! Clichés are phrases and terms that have been in widespread public use for so long that they are easily understood by most people.
Examples of cliche phrases:
- A gilded cage
- On the head
- Only time will tell
- The calm before the storm
- Kiss and makeup
- The fruit hangs low
- I stopped in my tracks
- Put out the tentacle
- Rain on my parade
- He stabbed him in the back
- Fire is in my blood
- The blood froze
- Dig into a hole
- Get your toes wet
- Stealing candy from a child
- Right up your alley
- Play your cards right
- All bets are off
- Everything in its time
- Seal the hatches
- The pot calls the kettle black
- On thin ice
A cliché is a shortcut that allows you to clearly understand the meaning of something without having to come up with your own words for it. This is why using clichés can make a writer lazy. They are simply re-using what someone else has written.
But that doesn’t mean you should never use them! Intentional writers can take a cliché and turn it on its head to bring an old adage to life.
Check out this tip from Self-editing for fiction writers:
“…before jumping into a cliché, consider the possibility of ‘flipping’ it by changing it slightly to make the wording less familiar. In a famous novel we edited, the writer used the phrase “they vanished into thin air” to avoid a long, complicated explanation. We suggested changing it to ‘they vanished into thin air’, which fits the poetic, rich atmosphere of the European city in which the scene is set.”
The exchange doesn’t have to be big! A tiny edit of switching “thick” to “thin” was enough to fix this cliché and make it fresh.
Changing the word, word order, or adding words to clichés are easy ways to give them new meaning.
“She opens a can of worms” could have been “she opens a can of worms and eats them.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” can be combined with “burning bridges” to become “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
“Time flies—maybe—time flies until the engine burns out.”
“Diamond in the Rough” can only be changed with one additional word: “Blood Diamond in the Rough.”
Don’t be afraid to use clichés – just take it easy.
2. Be specific
When tapping into the emotional side of prose, specificity is often a writer’s best friend. Anyone can make vague, sweeping statements to try to convince the reader that they’re feeling something, but a skilled writer can add emotional detail to tap into those emotions in a natural way.
As Richard Price said, “The bigger the problem, the less you write. Remember this. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No, you’re writing about a child’s burnt socks lying on the road. You choose the smallest controllable part of the big one, and you work with resonance.”
Focusing on the small details is often where you’ll find the emotion of a scene, giving you more room for beautiful writing.
3. Unexpected turns of phrase
Don’t always go for the obvious! Deviating from expectations of how a sentence will end can really wake up your reader.
Obviously, this applies to repurposing clichés, as we said before, but it can also apply to any sentence that might be more predictable than you’d like.
As an extreme example: “I woke up that morning, got dressed, had breakfast, walked the dog, and tripped over my neighbor’s severed arm.”
This concept can also be as simple as replacing one expected word with something else. I try to do this in my own works — for example, this sentence from mother:
“The child was brought up on stories about crows – dark creatures with black intentions.”
The expected wording would be “black creatures with dark intentions”, but a slight rearrangement of the two words makes it a fresher sentence.
The use of unexpected phrases can shock the reader’s attention and interest him in the story and prose.
4. Be precise and concise
Stiff prose won’t make your images more effective. Less is often better.
Use as many words as you like to make your point, but try to get rid of the extra prose and really get the point across.
Writing beautiful prose is similar to writing poetry. You want every word and image to carry weight.
Many poets write a first draft of a poem, then choose one or two very strong lines from that draft to write a new poem. Repeat until each word and line of the poem is as strong as possible.
Authors who write beautiful prose consider every word and image, weigh their effect, and make corrections.
Writing beautiful prose isn’t just about word usage and imagery—the rhythm of the piece is just as important.
Several factors can affect the rhythm of writing, including sentence length, syllable balance, internal rhymes, assonance, alliteration…
Sentence length and complexity
Sentence length and number of syllables can affect how the reader goes through the scene in their head. Long flowing sentences can give a sense of calm. Long, choppy sentences can make the reader fly through it, giving a sense of speed and urgency.
Shorter sentences can create a sense of hesitation or confusion.
Due to the large number of medium-length sentences, time may seem to pass more slowly.
In sentences of varying lengths, your word choice and length can determine how tempo and mood work.
Reading your work out loud is very helpful in assessing how it affects tempo.
“I inhaled. The concrete stake has bare feet. I grabbed the step of the stairs and braced myself. Swallowed. The crowd went quiet as I took my place on the springboard.’
“I took a breath and focused on the concrete crunching against my bare feet before grabbing the rung of the stairs and stepping up onto the springboard.”
The same event occurs in both of these examples, but at a radically different pace. What do you think the mood of each sentence is?
Rhymes, assonance, alliteration
While overt rhyming in ordinary fiction is likely to appear strange and distracting, the use of literary elements such as internal rhymes, assonance, and alliteration in some parts of the prose can make it sound musical and poetic.
So, depending on your goals and vibe, doing a little poetry in your prose can be nice! Don’t be afraid to play with sounds in your writing.
6. Completion of words/sentences
The last word of the sentence carries a lot of weight. It’s the last thing a reader sees in a sentence, image, or thought, so writers need to consider the point and/or word their sentence leaves off.
Likewise, the last sentence or image of a paragraph, chapter, etc. are important for the same reason.
Forgive me for using my own writing as another example (it’s the only book on my desk right now), but here’s a sentence from Sliced which describes a character covered in blood: “His shirt is crusted with brown, layered with fresh red.”
This sentence could be something like this: “Fresh red and brown cover his shirt.”
“Shirt” is not a very scary or interesting word. Ending the sentence with “fresh red” makes the overall image of this sentence bloody rather than focusing on his shirt.
Think carefully about how you end sentences and paragraphs, because the ending is often what interests your reader.
7. Consider perspective
Anyone can describe the scene. What you choose to describe and how you frame them can make your readers feel the way you want them to feel.
One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Kait Rakowski:
“Nothing ever ends poetically. It ends and we turn it into poetry. All that blood was never pretty. He was just red.”
Writing is more than just describing a thing. This is how the thing is described. When choosing the details and framing to focus on in a small amount of prose, think about how you want your reader to feel about the description. When you’re writing through a character’s POV, think about how they feel about what they’re looking at.
Audience and character perspectives can change the meaning of anything, so ask yourself what your goal is with each image.
How to write beautiful prose
Writing strong, beautiful prose is probably not something that comes easily or quickly. It takes practice, focus, and staying present at work.
Deliberate use of clichés, specificity, surprises, brevity, rhythm, endings, and perspective will give you a strong start to creating beautiful writing.
The real writing happens during editing, so keep cracking those edits!