What is Prose? In Poetry, Novels, & More

Posted on Sep 27, 2021

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Written by Sarah Rexford

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If you are writing a novel, are a blogger, nonfiction author, run a column on a writing website, or publish articles in other capacities, you write prose.

If you’ve ever sat down with a fellow writer and looked at their manuscript, you’ve looked at their prose.

Prose is essentially language without metrical structure. 

In short, prose is anything that is not poetry. 

Just as there are many different forms of prose writing, there are many different ways to become a talented prose writer. 

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What Is Prose In Literature?

Prose form of writing is this blog you’re reading. Prose is the magazine you read waiting for the dentist. Prose is the Instagram caption you wrote yesterday. Prose is in poetry you read.

Prose is language, but prose is not poetry. 

Prose can have many different voices.

Often, your voice defines your prose. What does this mean? Reading examples is one of the simplest and most effective ways to learn what voice is in regards to prose form writing. 

It’s one thing to tell you what prose is, it’s another to show you. And as writers, we do our best to follow the show-don’t-tell rule!  

As you read the examples below, notice which type of prose writing you connect with most, and why. Is it similar to your own writing voice? Different? How so?

Examples Of Prose Writing

A cool breeze kicked up and forced Brady to don his jacket. Soon he had zipped it to his neck and raised the collar. He could have hitchhiked, but he wasn’t even sure where he was going, and fwe people picked up guys who looked like him anyway. He usually had luck getting rides only when Peter was with him because the kid looked normal. The sun disappeared behind dark clouds, and now Brady bent into the wind. Perfect. Everything was going to go wrong today. 

—Riven, Jerry B. Jenkins

As the girls hop to, dragging the carts inside, the men edge away, never once turning their backs on us, as if just stepping over the threshold will unleash our magic, making us swallow them whole. We wait for parting words…instructions…anything…but they just stand there in silence.

The Grace Year, Kim Liggett

Think of suspense as building worry or apprehension. What factors need to be present for your character to worry about someone? What would build apprehension for him as he’s walking into a deserted warehouse? Tap into your own understanding of, and experiences with, worry and apprehension to get ideas for developing those feelings in your fiction.” 

Troubleshooting Your Novel, Steven James

I rubbed my back, touched the several long scabs to remind myself that I could not afford to make mistakes. And the scabs forced me to remember that I had been away from this palace for only a few days. Not that I had forgotten — exactly. But it was as though during my walk I had been getting used to the idea that years had passed for these since I had seen them last. I had begun to feel — feel, not think — that a great deal of time had passed for me too. It was a vague feeling, but it seemed right and comfortable. 

Kindred, Octavia E. Butler

It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table. It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love. So much in love that equally desperate measure must be taken. We are the Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

If motion doesn’t lead to results, why do we do it? SOmetimes we do it because we actually need to learn to plan or learn more. But more often than not, we do it because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure. Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism. It doesn’t’ feel good to fail or to be judged publicly, so we tend to avoid situations where that might happen. And that’s the biggest reason why you slip into motion rather than taking action: you want to avoid failure. 

Atomic Habits, James Clear

Tips For Strong Prose Writing 

Prose can differentiate your writing from all others. If a reader picks up your book and starts reading, how satisfying would it be for them to know you are the other before they ever look at the back cover? 

Just as your speaking voice has a certain sound to it, your writing voice can as well. Finding that voice and then presenting it in all the originality that it is, will make your prose stand out. 

Below is a list of tips for prose writing. Feel free to take notes on what stands out to you, and implement the points that make the most sense for you and your writing. 

1. Be Authentic

No matter what you write, you use language to do so. It’s the one factor of writing no one can get away from. Your writing then, is what sets you apart.

How you use language is what makes you unique. Be authentic to your voice. Write in a way that is true to you. This will help your prose! 

2. Be True To Your Characters 

How you use language is what makes you unique as a writer, and especially in fiction, how you use language is what makes developing your characters unique.

Look at the following two examples of dialogue: 

  1. “I was thinking maybe… Would you want to hang out sometime? I mean if you’re not too busy.”
  2. “I really enjoy spending time with you. Could I take you out this weekend if you’re available?” 

Both lines of dialogue communicate a similar request, but option A communicates a more reserved, shy character. Option B communicates a more forward, well-spoken character. 

In the Riven example above, notice how Jenkins writes from his protagonist’s perspective, even though the story is written in third person:

The sun disappeared behind dark clouds, and now Brady bent into the wind. Perfect. Everything was going to go wrong today.

Now notice the difference in the prose from the Kindred example:

 I had begun to feel — feel, not think — that a great deal of time had passed for me too. It was a vague feeling, but it seemed right and comfortable. 

In fiction (and nonfiction with dialogue), write your prose in a way that reinforces the thought processes of your characters. 

3. Share Information In A Fresh Way

Nonfiction writers: Most of us have nearly unlimited access to information. Communicating new information in an old way can feel flat.

Get creative and use your prose to communicate your information in a way that’s unexpected. 

4. Share Stories In A Fresh Way

While the three act story structure has been used for millions of stories, you can still communicate your story in a new way. What makes the way you tell your story feel fresh and engaging for readers? 

5. Steal Like An Artist

Knowing how to balance being inspired by others without copying their work can feel a little gray at times. The book Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon speaks into this situation. It’s a fantastic book if you want to be inspired by other creatives and their ideas while communicating your own with integrity. 

6. Know When To Stop

Prose is powerful, but if you try too hard it can be self-defeating. Show your personality through your prose, reveal the mannerisms of your protagonist, engage your reader, but know the balance of when to use your voice and when to simply say something plainly. 

7. Know Your Audience

What type of prose does your audience connect with? What draws them in? Read what they are reading. Listen to what they listen to. Use your own voice, but allow the right other voices to influence your own.

You will connect with your audience that much better. 

8. Communicate Verbally 

As you work to improve your prose, listen to how you communicate when speaking. Notice how you talk to your family, friends, and coworkers. Simply listening to yourself with intentionality can draw attention to how you naturally communicate. Translate this to the page as dialogue.

9. Know Yourself 

What are your writing goals? What type of prose will help get you there? If you think you want to write YA dystopia but only read medical journals, you may want to ask if you’re actually passionate about YA fiction.

Pay attention to what you spend your free time reading and writing when there is no agenda. How you spend your time often reveals where your true interests lie. 

10. Read, Read, Read

Writers write. Writers also read.

Read prose in the genre you write. Read prose in genres you don’t write. Read blogs. Articles. Transcripts.

If you write nonfiction that is heavy with dialogue, transcripts of interviews can be very insightful in how people naturally speak. Of course, you don’t want to include as many filler words in your dialogue as untrained speakers may (this slows the action and takes away from the story), but paying attention to the natural ebb and flow of a conversation can be very helpful. 

As you turn your attention back to your prose, which tips will be most helpful for you? It may be a good idea to write them down on a sticky note and place it next to your keyboard or notebook. 

Implementing the right tips is crucial. 

While not every tip will apply to your current situation, having a well-rounded understanding of what makes prose great is important to your writing success. 

Poetry has rules that need to be known, particularly when writing a very specified type of poem.

Writing has rules.

Prose is up to you. 

Incorporate the tips that make sense for your writing style, your voice, and your personality. Communicate the feelings of your characters through their dialogue. Communicate your artistic style through the way in which you use language. 

And don’t forget your target audience. Remember, reader first, even in prose. Who will read your writing? What type of prose will they most gravitate to? 

Great writing comes down to two things: The story, and how the story is told. 

You have your story idea. Now it’s time to tell it. 

What tips will you include to take your prose to the next level? 

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