What Is Good Prose?

Writers and readers both love to discuss, and maybe argue about, what constitutes “good” prose. From the readers’ points of view, the definition really has to come down to a matter of taste, is the conclusion I usually end up drawing from these disussions. Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on.

It occurred to me that we might look at the problem from the other side: the writer’s point of view. What constitutes good prose?  I’d submit this definition: prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

We can define “bad” prose as words that fail to do what the writer wants them to do. Really bad prose is so muddled that we can’t even tell what the writer had in mind, but such rarely does get into print. Usually the examples are less extreme. A strict-genre entertainment might be written in such complex, rambling sentences that a reader looking for a few hours of escape decides to throw the book across the room. A thoughtful, serious near-future SF work that sounds like a middle grade adventure story is not going to get much respect.

Here’s an example of how bad prose can wreck a story, one I remember from a writing class of many years ago. I’ve forgotten the writer’s name, and I bet he’d be glad I have. Anyway, the story concerned a Sensitive, Poetic Young man who yearned for a certain girl at a high school dance. He asks her to dance, she makes fun of him, his pain knows no bounds. The reader does feel his pain and feels sorry for him until he rushes out of the dance into the parking lot, where

“in the glare of floodlights the pale trunks of the eucalyptus trees looked like cottage cheese.”

That, folks, is mood-shattering prose.

Katharine Kerr has written too many odd books in various genres.  Her science fiction novel, POLAR CITY BLUES, is available as a BookViewCafe ebook.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.


What Is Good Prose? — 4 Comments

  1. I think a distinction between “good as adequate prose” vs. “bad as gosh-awful flatfooted labored impossible-to-read-through prose” and “good as gleaming lapidary language” vs. “bad as mediocre workmanlike prose” is useful. “Eye of Argon” and Atlanta Nights are bad prose, but prose that passes the workmanlike bar really does get into a matter of taste.

    (Indeed, I have recently pontificated on the matter. Amazing how the web can pass around ideas for riffs.)

  2. As a contributor to ATLANTA NIGHTS I have to say that it is -hard- to write really bad prose. To deliberately select the wrong word, to dampen the drive of the plot — it’s surprisingly difficult to do. I could never sustain my AN style over an entire novel, even though I kept it as simple as possible. (My humble goals: wedging in as many mundane profanities into the dialogue as possible, and making sure that -nothing- happened.)
    Could it be that writing badly is as specific a gift as writing well?

  3. Pingback: An Easy Scorecard to See How Well You Write | Writer's Conquest by Thomas A Fowler