How to Decide Between Plain Prose and Beautiful Prose

How to Decide Between Plain Prose and Beautiful Prose

How to Decide Between Plain Prose and Elegant Prose PinterestTruth is beauty. Beauty is truth. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in art, which deliberately and consciously explores both. Words, in particular, are the explicit context in which humanity presents, investigates, and shares its truth. Perhaps more than any other art form, writing gives us a blatant venue for exploring the truth side of the equation. But, of course, as writers we are also given the opportunity to create beautiful prose.

It’s the balance between the two that can sometimes get tricky.

Much like the creative/logical balance of writing/storytelling, creating a meaningful harmony of beauty and truth demands two different skill sets. Learning how to evoke beauty from even the simplest truths, or truth from the most decadent beauty, isn’t always a straightforward proposition.

In fact, writing a story that is both beautiful and true is largely a matter of knowing when to utilize which.

Writing Prose on the Continuum Between Truth and Beauty

Lately, I’ve found myself (rather glumly) realizing that I don’t really write beautiful prose anymore. In fact, in my outlines for my last two works-in-progress (the superhero historical Wayfarer due out this fall and the portal-fantasy sequel Dreambreaker), I made notes to myself along the lines of Go deep in the narrative! This wasn’t so much a craft instruction as coded encouragement to myself to revisit the more poetic “beautiful” style of writing I had used in earlier books, such as Behold the Dawn.

Behold the Dawn (Amazon affiliate link)


I admit it: I really love the writing in that book.  Sometimes I’ll pick it up just to read over the poetry of some of its phrases. And I’ll wonder: why don’t I write this way anymore? Despite my outlining directives, I seem to write less poetically, less lushly, less beautifully with each subsequent book.

Oh, sure, there are some beautiful passages here and there, the occasional turn of phrase that just sings. But mostly, the writing is more functional than elegiac. It wears workaday clothes rather than party clothes. It’s prose, not poetry.

So what happened? Has my writing ability digressed over the years? Or have I maybe just gotten out the habit of writing beautifully?

That’s what I was thinking—until I read Ethan Canin’s essay “Rehearsals for Death” in that lovely anthology Light the Dark. He made an observation about the limitations of beautiful writing:

I have a theory about writing, which is that you cannot simultaneously write something true about character and, at the same time, write something linguistically beautiful. There are too few words to express both truth and beauty….

I immediately resonated with that. Wasn’t that exactly what had happened to me, as a writer, in between writing Behold the Dawn fourteen years ago (!) and writing all the books that followed?

Even though Behold was the sixth novel I had written up to that point, it is really the book I view as seminal. It is the first of my books that I’m proud of. It is the first book I wrote as an adult. It’s the book on which I refined my personal outlining process. It’s not like I actually knew what I was doing when I wrote it, but it’s the book where I started to consciously grasp the theories of story.

From there on, my understanding of the “truth” of stories—as presented by plot, character, and theme—would grow with each book I write. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with each book, my prose got less beautiful. What I hope that means is that, with each book, the prose is also getting more truthful.

4 Ways to Write True Prose

Naturally, as writers, we all want to write both: words that are beautiful because they are true and words that are true because they are beautiful. But it’s important to consciously realize the purpose of each word, phrase, and sentence. Which is called for at each moment in the story—the simplicity of truth or the luxuriousness of beauty?

Today, let’s take a look at the principles of writing both plain prose and beautiful prose.

1. Know Your Truth

There are many facets to “truth” in a story. There’s the foundational truth of theme, which presents and comments upon universal facts of life. There’s the truth of accuracy, in our researched facts. The truth of geninuiness in our presentation of our characters as realistic human beings. And there’s the simple truth of a well-placed word that resonates with readers like a perfect note of music.

You can’t convey any of these truths if you aren’t aware of them personally. As we’ve talked about frequently this year, being a writer means assuming the sometimes-heavy, always-liberating responsibility of personal honesty. This involves more than just passive honesty (accepting the truths you see) but also active honesty (seeking to identify and overcome your own misconceptions about yourself and the world).

There will always be times when you have to fight to write true prose—when the truth is too abstract, complicated, or even unformed to be easily translated into words. But when you seek truth in every moment of your life, that truth will often show up in your writing without concentrated effort. Your writing is you and when you’re a truthful person, your truth will necessarily show up in your words. (And, by the same logic, so will your lies!)

2. Write What Comes Naturally

Here’s a #YouKnowYouAreAWriterWhen: you find yourself learning truths from your own writing.

There are lines from my own books that I find myself quoting over and over again. They’ve become mantras of my life and my personal beliefs. Obviously, I wrote these lines; they came from me. But it doesn’t really feel like that. I didn’t consciously know these truths before I wrote them down in their stories. Rather, it feels like I discovered the truths by writing them, by just letting the words flow out of me in response to the needs of the story.

As a matter of fact, the lines in my stories that feel most true to me are not the ones I labored over. They’re not the truths I deliberately chose to share in carefully parsed sentences. They are, instead, these truths that just poured out naturally when I wasn’t looking.

The lesson here is: don’t worry too much about being “truthful.” Sometimes that kind of awareness can be a fast-track to preaching. After all, “truth” is such a lofty word. For any of us to assume we own some great “truth” that no one else has discovered is not only arrogant but (most ironically of all) untrue. While it’s great to deliberately share the insights life has taught us, it’s even more important to simply open ourselves to the page, eliminate any censorious impulses, and just see what flows out.

3. Write Simply—Short Sentences, Small Words

Beauty needn’t always be decadent. Sometimes it needn’t even be, strictly speaking, beautiful. There is beauty even in ugliness—when that ugliness is true. In his essay, Canin went on to comment:

[M]ost empathetic—or another way to say this might be character-driven—writers tend to naturally reserve their beautiful constructions for when the content is less urgent. You’ll see [Saul] Bellow get poetic when he’s writing about scenery…. But when he’s trying to write something that really gets to the narrator’s deep emotional experience, the prose is mostly very simple: That was how he was. Five plain words.

Dreamlander (Amazon affiliate link)

One of the passages I’m most proud of in my own writing is a scene in Dreamlander that presents the protagonist with his first experience of war. It’s the benchmark I always use in challenging myself to write honestly. In writing this scene, I used the old trick of putting myself in the character’s shoes and asking: What I would I be thinking? The answer I came up with was a single simple phrase that got repeated over and over throughout the scene: So this is war.

Plain words, short sentences, and simple constructions all lend themselves to the clarity and emphasis of truthful statements. They stand on their own. They never get in their own way. They’re unvarnished.

4. Seek Subtext—Let Readers Find Their Own Truth

Something life has taught me: you can’t give someone the answers. They have to find the answers for themselves by first asking the right questions.

The same is true for your readers. You may want desperately to share important truths with them. But just handing them those truths will often be, at best, ineffective. Asking them to do a little work, to look for the truth, to make an investment of themselves in your story—that’s where truthful writing rises above platitudes to the level of transformative experience.

How do you this? By not sharing all the truth. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg notes:

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply, and writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Subtext is the most powerful part of any story. Why? Because it speaks directly to the subconscious. It is the hidden part of the story reaching out to the hidden part of the reader.

Creating truthful subtext begins by creating truthful context—which sits upon the foundation of all three of the principles we’ve discussed so far. Writers must seek the connection between conscious and subconscious, outer experience and inner experience to the point that we grow skilled in prompting readers to understand the truth of the subtext based on nothing more than the outstanding truth of our context.

4 Ways to Write Beautiful Prose

If writing truthful prose is primarily about getting out of the way of your own honesty, then writing beautiful prose is a little more craft-oriented.

1. Practice Poetic Techniques

Beautiful writing is often called “poetic” writing—and for good reason. Poetry is a pursuit of truth through beauty. It uses wordplay and word tricks to please both the ear and the eye. Some of the best of these are:

1. Rhyme

Even in prose, you can occasionally make use of rhymes to smooth the flow. This can get corny quickly, but used skillfully, it blends into the prose, creating gentle beauty without necessarily catching the readers’ conscious attention.

2. Rhythm

Perhaps even more important than word choice is the balance of your sentences in evoking beauty. A mix of sentences—short, long, simple, complex, compound, fragment, run-on—gives you the tools to create music on the page.

3. Alliteration

Also to be used with sparing care, alliteration is the technique of choosing multiple words with the same beginning sound (beautiful blonde bombshell). Used with subtlety, so it does not draw undue attention to itself, alliteration creates both the beauty of pattern and enhanced meaning via repetitive emphasis.

2. Seek Vivid Analogies

Sci-fi wizard Robert Heinlen may have claimed, in Starship Troopers, that “analogies are always suspect,” but he was talking about political science, not beautiful prose. Analogies—similes and metaphors—are the gateways to understanding. They allow us the opportunity to shed greater clarity and insight on prosaic items and ideas by exploring their similarities with other items and ideas.

A well-placed simile or metaphor can immediately skyrocket your prose into top-notch prose-poetry. But analogies are easy to abuse. Comparing your heroine’s wedding dress to a “cloud of toilet paper” might seem apropos in the rush of the first draft, but on revision, you may realize that the plainer “white” might be the better descriptor.

3. Expand Your Vocabulary

In alignment with Canin’s original idea that stories are often either truthful or beautiful, some of my favorite books are not those that do an objectively excellent job with plot and character but rather books that are simply beautiful in their choice of words. Some of these words are the plainest and simplest. But often, beautiful prose is the result of a vocabulary master who knows how to discover and use beautifully unusual words.

For example, a recent phrase that I loved in my own reading was Brent Weeks’s “blood incarnadined the water” from his fantasy Blood Mirror.

You can’t use beautiful words to beautiful effect unless you know the words. Become a student of vocabulary. Master your words. Naturally, don’t use big or unusual words just because they’re big or unusual, but add enough of them to your repertoire so you’ll have the right one for the right moment.

4. Choose the Right Moment

The ability to craft and use beautiful prose is a talent every writer should hone. Beautiful prose will set you apart from other writers just as surely as the ability to craft solid plots. But you must know when to employ beauty—and when doing so will just get in the way of the story’s impact.

Canin again:

At the crux of the story it pays to write what’s true, rather than try to write what’s true and then dilute that by making the prose beautiful. It’s a continuum, of course, but I don’t think you can be at both ends of the continuum.

As for me, I’m no longer worrying that my prose isn’t beautiful enough. There are appropriate moments in every story for poetic passages. But the story comes first, and most of the time, that means focusing more on honest prose than elaborate prose.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Which do you feel you need improve on more: plain prose or beautiful prose? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Robert Billing says

    Once again thanks for a really interesting and insightful article.

    Personally I found that reading Shakespeare, particularly Henry V, gave me a sense of the poetic, and significantly improved my prose style.

    It’s interesting that you should mention alliteration. This is something that I find tends to happen naturally when I want a sense of connection over several words of description:

    Two hours later Sinclair called Spence as he turned the (space)ship onto final over the ocean. The smaller moon winked through broken clouds, sparkling on the surf, while ahead the lights of Galveston glowed golden against the gloom. Sinclair ran in, almost silently, with the turbines at idle, descending steeply through the stillness of the night.

    Also I find that when I am trying to describe something very beautiful I slide into a quasi-poetic style:

    The lurch as the gyros kicked in, pitching the ship nose down in response to her unplanned command, jerked her rudely and fully awake.
    As the ship slowly turned, the entire span of the galaxy came into view, filling the glass from edge to edge, but now she was fifteen thousand light years above the great disk, and seeing the spiral arms laid out in their majesty as a vast diamond tapestry in front of her.
    The endless curving arches of stars burned on, ageless and silent in the darkness, returning to the unwinking glory of the complex, terrible core. Somewhere, out there, in that stark, cold beauty was a region whose diameter was barely one hundredth of the whole galaxy, which was everything that every human had known. Out there, in a space that she could blot out with her thumb, on five hundred worlds, every man, woman and child, save her, lived and died, and rejoiced and mourned, and fought and made peace. And still the awful majesty of the stars burned on, tearing her soul apart with their unchanging loveliness, in the depths of their silence speaking the truths she couldn’t bear to hear.
    She’d been running, running from herself. She’d lost her temper with Alan, Alan was dead, and there was nobody else to blame. Life wasn’t a game any more.
    That—and nothing else—was what she’d to learn to live with, the knowledge she’d take to bed every night, the truth that she’d wake up with each morning.
    She could run if she chose, she could try to hide—but the stars would always be there to remind her. Or she could turn back and, one day at a time, learn to live again.

    For me it’s all about trying to produce the right effect in the reader’s mind, poetic or prosaic, and finding the style of writing that will achieve what I want.

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says

      RE: alliteration – I came up with a short one recently that I like, while writing a scene in which a teen boy experimented with pot acquired by his friend. On hitchhiking home, they get picked up by a drunk driver, who then gets picked up by police. After his parents fetch him from the police station, they talk late into the night about the situation. “She was torn over whether to mother or murder her son.” Just a touch here and there seems to suit the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nobody does it better than Shakes. Even all these centuries and so much language evolution later, his turn of phrase is unrivaled.

  2. I was just thinking about this last night, but in a slightly different way. I was reading through one of my students’ stories and had a conversation with my wife about how resistant my students are to the idea that simple is often beautiful. They want to gussy up their sentences with excess adverbs and adjectives. They want to make shoddy compound sentences by using gerund phrases and “X as Y” constructions. They don’t want to believe that a simple sentence with a strong, active verb can be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be Hemingway-esque.

    But I take your point well: there is also a type of prose that is deliberately beautiful. I think of someone like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, where she writes sentences I can’t even imagine writing, sentences so beautiful and rich that I have to stop and savor them.

    And perhaps that’s why Canin’s point about truth v. beauty makes some sense. If I stop to savor, I’m being drawn to the surface of the page, and it takes me away from the trajectory of truth. It’s like modern art: when the artist draws our attention to the surface of the canvas, we are by necessity not dissolving into the illusion of the subject. I find it equally pleasurable, but certainly a different kind of pleasure.

    So what authors do you think of as beautiful writers, K.M.? Who do you turn to for poetic inspiration?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, great point about how stopping to savor beautiful writing can pull you out of the “truth” of the narrative.

      As for beautiful writers, Charles Frazier immediately comes to mind. Markus Zuzak. Milena McGraw.

  3. I’m an ugly writer. I occasionally use a simile if my beta readers can’t imagine the setting. I never use metaphors. In RL and in my writing if I use a metaphor, even a common one like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, my audience will interpret it literally. It is depressing. They also object to unfamiliar words.

    • Sally M. Chetwynd says

      I receive that questioning of unfamiliar words from some of my beta readers, too. I find this frustrating, primarily because the words they point out are words I have been familiar with since I was a child. My education level is similar to theirs, and some of them have higher education than I do, with graduate degrees and such. I read all manner of children’s books like Kipling’s “The Jungle Books,” “Black Beauty,” “Beautiful Joe,” “The Wizard of Oz,” Albert Terhune’s series of stories about his collie dogs, Thornton W. Burgess’ stories depicting the natural history of American forest animals, Jack London’s works about Alaskan adventure, to say nothing of dozens of others. I adhere to Beatrix Potter’s well substantiated theory that children (and adults) will understand the meaning of a new word if provided in context. I refuse to dumb down my work to appeal to those who are too lazy to learn something new. If it’s the right word to convey what I need it to convey, it’s the right word.

      The bottom line is that although we writers, with a message we wish to communicate, need to use language that propels that message as clearly as we can, we still need to be true to ourselves, to our story, and to the integrity of our characters. We’ll never please every reader out there, and we don’t need to. In writing as with so many other things in life, one size does not fit all. Our interpretation of these various ‘truths’ in life and story does not have to match everyone else’s, or anyone else’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Practice makes perfect. 🙂 Try setting yourself some exercises in which you write the most elaborate passages you can imagine, just for fun. Then go back and underline all the bits that work.

  4. Lori Altebaumer says

    Excellent job explaining the difference between plain prose and beautiful prose, and definitely something I found useful. I had never heard this discussed before and hadn’t thought of it in quite this way. When emotional impact is important (and when is it not?), there are moments when the poetic fits best and moments when the simple, honest, even understated, are more powerful. Thank you for the reminder that there can be a place for both, but that truth always comes first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Knowing when to choose beauty over simplicity has a lot to do with pacing. Beauty is almost always slower, so if there’s a moment in the story when both the characters and the readers can slow down and savor, that’s a moment to try something more lyrical.

  5. Sally M. Chetwynd says

    Oh, good! This post is one I will share with my writers’ critique group – we all can benefit from your analysis, no matter our level of skill or craft.

    I continue to be impressed with your various analyses of different aspects of craft. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Lots to think about– thanks for raising these questions for us.

    I’m not sure if I think “beauty” in words is hard to combine with “truth,” or if truth leads so directly to plainness. But some of your points get me thinking.

    Analogies, metaphors, and so on add beauty by bringing extra subjects into a phrase; in one sense they’re impressive, but in another they pull part of the reader’s awareness back to the description and away from what actually is happening. Exotic words and poetic combinations do the same on a finer level of words or sounds rather than whole concepts. They all add emphasis around the thing itself, but saying “nothing but the truth” might minimize the distractions. So it depends on how much you want your reader to stay aware of your craft for its own sake.

    Subtext, and writing less to suggest more? One way to say “only the truth” but pull the reader in deeper would be to lay out more aspects of what’s going on and why it matters to the character, and build power from clarity instead of linguistic beauty. That’s always a balancing choice of how much time you can take spelling it out– like description, some styles allow for more detail, and others let more stay as subtext. Even when it works, it does it by tying the moment deeper into the story’s own specifics, and that moves it away from what the readers bring in their own heads.

    So one approach with those details might be moving back and forth. Give specifics and meanings to show the reader how deep the story goes for that character and that moment– then back out to let the readers play that off of their own beliefs when you say a simple “So this is war.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I definitely agree that it’s a back-and-forth. We ultimately want both types of writing in our stories. As you say, the simple sentences such as “so this is war” are often all the more poignant for being placed within the contrast of longer, more ornate phrasings.

  7. Absolute nonsense. Gorgeous prose is perfectly capable of being concise, dense, and truthful. Just because you feel that you cannot strike the balance you want, doesn’t mean nobody can.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ideally, the two blend so well that we don’t even think about telling one from the other.

  8. Thanks for this post, Katie. A finished first draft had me contemplating whether or not my writing was too simple. But maybe it is enough for what the story requires. More editing passes will allow me the chance to beatify the prose, if need be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely nothing wrong with simple prose as it long as it not simplistic, in the sense of repetitive rhythms or on-the-nose phrasings.

  9. Tom Youngjohn says

    Sound advice.

  10. #TeamCloudofToiletPaper I expect this to be the description of Allara’s wedding dress.

  11. Neat coincidence that you hold up “Behold the Dawn,” because not only did I just finish reading it a few days ago on my Kindle, I ended up putting the paperback in my shopping cart at Amazon. It’s going on my mental bookshelf as a “soul balm” book, and partly it’s because I love the marriage of good story + good prose.

    These days lousy prose will take me out of a story, but I agree that focusing too much on “beautiful writing” can have the exact same effect. And it could be dishonest in another way — sometimes one must say “white” and not “albescent,” because albescent isn’t true to the tone or character whose POV one is using. In my Greco-Roman fantasy the characters may speak of “wandering stars” in the “firmament” or the heavens. But for a modern story / sci-fi, the characters may be observing planets in the sky. In an Edgar Allen Poe-ish horror story I’d write “sepulchre,” but in a Stephen King-ish story I’d write “tomb.”

    Harking back to what you said about self-indulgent writing, for me a key clue is whether the prose and vocabulary is pegged appropriately to the tone, character, or circumstances of the scene. I’m skeptical of lyrical language if the scene involves a highly stressful situation, or when a character is in the wrong state of mind to use poetic rather than stark terms.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Spot on. Writing is, after all, about nothing more or less than choosing the *right* word.

      And that makes me incredibly happy about Behold the Dawn. So glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  12. I loved your self-awareness coming to the page – your reflection on your work and how it changed. I write crime stories and thrillers with different shades of dark and am sparse on beautiful prose and instead, favor what you call truth. But the late Peter Temple (a Miles Franklin and multiple Ned Kelly award winner as well as others) seemed at times to be able to do both. Despite his recent death, he remains my mentor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My goal is still to do both. I think having become aware of what was happening has helped me better refine what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

  13. This was very insightful. I’ve never given much thought to the distinction between true or beautiful writing, but you’ve laid out a compelling argument! Thanks for the interesting read!

  14. I agree with your post and find myself thinking about this dilemma? constantly. My own writing is simple, functional, truthful, blue collar. I just read a novel that was extremely poetic, but not purple. I concur with the comments that noted how really lyrical writing can (sometimes) pull you out of the story while you marvel over the dazzling words of the author. Some skilled writers seem to lean on their incredible prose like a crutch at the expense of their story, because they can. Of course, a few can do both but they are the exception. I think part of the consideration should be what genre you write. If you write literary fiction you’re more likely to skew poetic perhaps, while if you write middle grade you should stick to clean, simple prose. Rick Riordan, for example, writes beautifully in my opinion but he’s rarely poetic. His sentences flow with perfect rhythm without ever being ornate. His is an example of simple, functional yet gorgeous prose. I think it’s a great exercise to practice “both” styles so you can deploy them as necessary and seek to attain that ideal balance of truth and poetry. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely agree about it being a great exercise to practice both styles. Writing should always be about stretching the comfort zones of our own voices.

  15. At the heart of this article is the phrase know YOUR Truth. I don’t think you can truly write until you know yourself.
    thanks for the great thoughts
    Cary Richards

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wholeheartedly agree–although writing can also be a way of helping us find ourselves.

  16. Completely fascinating! I haven’t even begun to unpack all the interesting concepts in this post. I wonder if part of your development isn’t also strengthening Se — I think Se-users favor a more immersive, “you are there” style. And there is a very direct tension between the reader’s feeling like she is IN the scene and the reader being aware of the words on the page.

    It’s something I think about because I admire this style of writing a great deal, and I really cannot do it myself, at least not yet. (I’m not even aware of the physical objects that are literally around me. Every so often I suddenly realize how messy my office has become.) As a Si-tertiary, I favor small sensory details, one at a time, with internal reflection/comparison, which breaks the pure sensory immersion but is also interesting in a mild way. (Like sorting buttons into a container.) It isn’t really “in the moment” even when it’s making sensory observations. Which is why a total deluge of sensory data is also fascinating!

    I think you are right. There is more to this divide than Se/Si. I had never ever thought about the beauty/truth tension in prose style, and I’m so pleased to have a new dichotomy to chew through. I bought that anthology a few weeks ago, and was enjoying it very thoroughly until I left it at my parents’ house. I look forward to reading the essay you cite in this article. Eventually.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m glad you brought this up! It’s so fascinating to consider how personality affects writing style. Ni is definitely an analogy-heavy style, so perhaps I have been developing Se. Makes sense, right? I’d like to think so anyway. 😉

  17. I enjoyed the article. As a poet I certainly concur with most of what you have said. The one exception is that I find blunt, crude, and sometimes careless word usage is necessary to convey the sentiment intended. Poetic is more, in my mind, an exercise to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. My mantra is “be succinct”. I would warn people to not confuse flowery or purple with poetic. Consider the phrase, although trite, of “trip off the tongue.” It is the sudden lilt that helps describe it. For an excellent example of poetic prose used extremely well I would point to Lincon’s Gettysburg Address.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent point. No one would accuse Hemingway of being flowery, but his style was very poetic in its own way.

  18. One thing that I think that makes a difference (at least for me) is whether or not I’m writing in first-person. I’m a lot more likely to try to write beautiful prose in third person because a narrator is showing the scene to the audience, while in first person you only get to see what the character his/herself is seeing and feeling.

    When I think of beautiful, poetic writing, Patricia McKillip comes to mind. I love `Song for a Basilisk’, but I have to admit, I sometimes have trouble following what’s going on in her books because they’re so densely poetic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. For all that, 1st and deep 3rd are very similar, there are definite tonal differences. It’s still extremely important for 1st-person have a super-strong voice though.

      • Ah, but `voice’ and `poetic voice’ are two different things. 🙂 My current main character doesn’t know a lot of words, so he has to use a lot of small ones strung together to describe things. There have been places where I’ll think of the perfect word, then have to say `yeah, well, my character grew up in a cave and learned the human tongue from a bunch of bandits. He’s not going to know what `iridescent’ means. (It’s really frustrating! The perfect word, and too often I can’t use it!)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Totally agree, but just wanted to throw that out there, since one of the biggest issues I see with first-person narratives is a bland voice.

          • I can see that. It can be hard, too, to make sure its the character talking and not you, the author -especially when it comes to descriptions.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            It *is* hard–which is why I’ve yet to write a book in 1st-person. :p

  19. I’ve been a lifelong fan of David Mitchell, ever since randomly picking up his first novel, Ghostwritten, while waiting for a friend in a bookstore in 1999.

    David Mitchell is THE argument for beautiful prose. If there is another writer alive who can craft prose as beautiful as Mitchell can, I have not encountered that writer.

    Yet I cannot recall a single instance where I felt Mitchell was trying too hard, or where I felt certain words or phrases were out of place. The man is a demigod with the pen who, to quote the New York Times, “can apparently do anything.”

    To me, that’s proof that prose doesn’t have to be serviceable or plain to be “good.” It has to be appropriate, it has to fit with the narrative, but we don’t have to abandon beauty or stop trying to craft sentences that demand to be read and re-read.

    On the other hand, another of my favorite novelists (who I won’t name, because I genuinely love the guy and he’s been incredibly gracious the handful of times we’ve corresponded) has gone the other route, and one of his most recent books is written in a Laconian style that doesn’t do him or the story any favors. I don’t know why he decided to go in that direction. He was particularly great at coming up with amusing and dead-on metaphors, and really shined when it came to descriptive writing.

    That’s not to say every book or story needs fireworks. Mitchell is known for his literary ventriloquism, and his most famous book is written in six distinct styles, each of them tied to the era in which they’re set — one chapter (The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish) is so beautifully written it feels like highlighting would be pointless, because I would literally highlight everything, while the next (The Second Luisa Rey Mystery) is intentionally written in the style of a lousy pulp crime novel. It works.

    Like everything else, context matters, and so does moderation.

  20. Scribalist says

    I kind of reject plain prose. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Of course, this is coming from a person who says random words just to understand how they sound together. I always want everything to sound grand and epic. I tried rewriting Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and it was, liberally, poetry before I hit the first bad infodump, at which point I decided that I need to start writing my own stuff.

    What I really have trouble with is coming up with details, so I’m in the middle of tweaking my process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing is an evolution. I fully expect to re-enter another period of more ornate writing, with the right project. As we say, every story is its own adventure!

  21. I love (and live) your line about how your truth and your lies will come out in your prose when you’re not looking. I have learned things I believe from the offhand comments and outbursts of my characters.

    “I told you,” one of my main characters says, as if to an accusation, “None of us are free. Nobody that matters.”

    Sure, it made a different kind of sense in the story–all free locals on Planet Larrikesh were rejects from the feudal culture–but on its own, it haunts. It’s true, at least, for me—and as a twenty-first century male, who would have thought THAT lived in my head?

    Answer: Not I.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes I think we’re the ones who are the most surprised by what comes out of our own mouths–or our characters’ mouths, as the case may be!

  22. Every person has a style. This doesn’t mean your glued to it forever. It is a journey, one that has value every step of the way. Love this read. Thanks for offering your thoughts and examples!

  23. I was raised with the Romantics as was my father’s favourites so I come from a poetic background heavily influenced by imagery and hyperbole. Rhyme, rhythm, romance (and yes, a little alliteration.) It’s definitely evident in my prose as well. I prefer Nabokov to Hemingway though, I can still tell a story with a plot that doesn’t just sound pretty. I believe I’ve found a balance. I’d never give up poetic prose for proper prose nor use superfluous wordplay and poesy for the hell of it. Sure, I show off from time to time to prove I’m a proper, poetic practitioner of purple prose (I sometimes use humorous asides to explain the irony, or redundancy like this one) but I can tell a story from start to finish if I choose. I suppose the wordsmith in me isn’t going to die anytime soon but the storyteller isn’t either. I just love to manipulate the English language. If you check out my page, you’ll see what I mean. Lovely post! Very captivating.

  24. David Franklin says

    As always (sorry, I’ve been a lurker for a while), an excellent article KM. It got me thinking about which way I lean.

    I’m not averse to using beautiful prose, when it’s called for. But I find that beautiful prose can, ironically, get in the way of describing beauty.
    To show readers the beauty of a place or a person, especially the person’s character, requires honest writing.
    Here’s a snippet from my first novel, an observation made by a doctor of a nurse’s hands as she preps for an operation:

    Her hands move swiftly and assuredly. They are covered with scars – a slice here, a burn there, the marks of a life of caring for others. They are beautiful.

    Sure, I’ve included a bit of telling in his thoughts, when he observes that her hands are beautiful, but I was going for honesty in this passage. And a fair dose of subtext.

  25. Nadia Syeda says

    I’ll admit, I do love beautiful prose here and there, but I’ll also admit, I’ll skip entire paragraphs of description because I feel it slows down the action and fast-paced breath of the scene. I only enjoy it when the tone of the narrative is slower, just going on a walk, but I absolutely hate it when a suspenseful fight is going on and the author spends her entire time talking about how absolutely ugly they look. Yes, I know they’re ugly, but I’m more interested in how those ugly fantasy beasts try to tear off the characters’ heads and feed their corpses to their young!

    I think, honestly, that all authors should aspire to interesting prose. Take Ray Bradbury for instance in Fahrenheit 451. He’s absolutely brilliant with his prose, like describing how different the neighboring girl is compared to the rest of her generation, and it’s made even more interesting because of the setting, the characters, the subtext, the story. And Stephen King with his Low Men in Yellow Coats. I was absorbed in his prose, thoroughly marveling at how well-written it was and the subtextual context, but unlike other beautiful stories I’ve read, I didn’t want to skip anything. Indeed, I kept checking how many pages were left! Then I re-read the story, cry, read it again, tell myself I can never write like this,cry again, and then obsessively work on finding my own narrative voice. Now that’s good writing.

  26. I appreciate both styles. But my favorite writing is mostly plain/true with a handful of gems scattered throughout. A beautiful line that makes me pause every page or so is perfect.


  1. […] how eating habits and their social impacts contributes to world building. K.M. Weiland guides us in choosing between plain prose and beautiful prose, Dawn Field reminds us that context is everything when choosing words, and James Scott Bell tells […]

  2. […] “Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in art, which deliberately and consciously explores both. Words, in particular, are the explicit context in which humanity presents, investigates, and shares its truth. Perhaps more than any other art form, writing gives us a blatant venue for exploring the truth side of the equation. But, of course, as writers we are also given the opportunity to create beautiful prose.” This is something I’ve struggled to do: write beautifully. I did when I was younger when the world hadn’t disillusioned me so. Now, I write simply, truthfully about what I’ve learned, about what I would like to be, and about hopes for things to get better. I think that’s why I write YA, because nowhere can we find more hope, more push to do better than in our younger generations. They are everything! […]

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