Readers know a good story when they read it. They know when characters are strong, when dialogue and pacing are good, when the plot is interesting and the end satisfying, but few readers know what makes good writing as in the prose, the actual words you place on the page.
The following are not rules, just guidelines. Where I mention forms to avoid, it is over usage that is the issue, not whether they are there or not.
What makes good prose?
- Sounds natural and flows so smoothly that you’re not even aware that you’re reading. Once you become aware of the words, if something jars, then the writing is not so good—unless it’s a confusion on your part due to cultural differences between you and the writer.
- Draws you into the story so that you feel that you are right in the scene, not watching from outside. This is the difference between a writer who tells you a story and one who shows you the story.
- Has nothing extraneous. Readers often mistake overwriting for good writing, but good writing has very few adverbs and adjectives and doesn’t have the following markers of overwriting:
o A lot of there are, there is, there was, here is, here are etc, particularly not at the beginning of sentences.
o Repetition, when it isn’t for a particular effect, and saying the same thing in several different ways.
o Taking a long time to express something, or spending several pages on something that could be said in a couple of paragraphs.
o Long convoluted sentences and big words where the idea could be expressed more simply.
o A plethora of beautiful metaphors and similes. One per paragraph or per four sentences is a good rule. More than that and it’s like eating food that is far too rich. Plain writing around the metaphors sets them off like putting a frame around an artwork.
- Generally uses active verbs rather than passive ones. Particularly, you should not find a lot of was and were, and other forms of the verb to be. Eg I stood in the house is better than I was in the house. Good writing doesn’t have a lot of was and were followed by words ending in ing, e.g., he limped is stronger than he was limping.
- Does not use a lot of ‘ing’ ending verbs, particularly not more than one in a sentence and doesn’t use them to begin sentences more than about once in 10,000 words. They are much weaker than ‘ed’ ending words.
- Rarely begins sentences with ‘as’.
- Has variety in the sentence lengths and structures.
- Doesn’t rely on looked, sounded, with and had in descriptions.
Have I forgotten anything? How would you describe good prose?