Writing beautiful prose isn’t something every writer nails in the beginning. It usually takes tons of intentional practice!
Strong prose often reads like poetry. The term “purple prose” refers to writing that might be a bit too flowery. That’s not always a bad thing—lots of readers and writers love flowery prose. It’s up to the author to decide the balance between beauty and readability in their own work.
So how do we balance beautiful writing with intentional, purposeful writing?
If you want your writing to be more beautiful, artistic, or unique, here are 7 ways to write beautiful prose.
1. Avoid or reimagine cliché phrases
Clichés aren’t always bad. In fact, they can be poignant, impactful phrases with slight reimagining.
There’s a reason new writers default to using clichés—they’re easy! Clichés are phrases and terms that have been in general public use for so long that they’re easily understandable for most people.
Examples of cliche phrases:
- Gilded cage
- Head over heels
- Only time will tell
- The calm before the storm
- Kiss and makeup
- Low hanging fruit
- I stopped dead in my tracks
- Put out feelers
- Rain on my parade
- Stabbed him in the back
- Fire in my blood
- Blood ran cold
- Digging yourself into a hole
- Get your toes wet
- Stealing candy from a baby
- Right up your alley
- Play your cards right
- All bets are off
- All in due time
- Batten down the hatches
- Pot calling the kettle black
- On thin ice
Clichés are a shortcut to slice right to the meaning of something without having to come up with your own words for it. That’s why using clichés can make a writer look lazy. They’re just reusing something that someone else wrote.
But that doesn’t mean you should never use them! Intentional writers can take a cliché and turn it on its head to bring new life to an old age.
Look at this advice from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:
“…before going with the cliché, give some thought to the possibility of “turning” it, altering it slightly to render the phrasing less familiar. In a celebrated novel we edited, the writer used the phrase “they vanished into thin air” to avoid a lengthy, complicated explanation. We suggested a change to “they vanished into thick air,” which fit the poetic, steamy atmosphere of the European city in which the scene was set.”
The swap-up doesn’t have to be big! The tiny edit of switching “thick” for “thin” was enough to doctor up that cliché and make it fresh.
Changing a word, the order of words, or adding words to a cliché are easy ways to give them a new spin.
“She’s opening a can of worms,” could become, “she’s opening a can of worms and eating 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,” could become, “time flies until the engine burns out.”
“Diamond in the rough” can be changed with just one additional word: “Blood diamond in the rough.”
Don’t be afraid of using clichés—just be cool about it.
2. Get 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 and convince a reader they’re feeling something, but a skilled writer can zoom into emotional details to tap into those emotions naturally.
Like RichardPrice said— “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”
Focusing on the small details is often where you’ll find the emotion of a scene, which will give you more room to write it beautifully.
3. Unexpected turns of phrase
Don’t always go for the most obvious thing! Diverting the expectations of how a sentence will end can really wake up your reader.
This obviously counts for repurposing clichés, like we talked about earlier, but it can also apply to any sentence that might be more predictable than you’d like it to be.
As an extreme example: “I woke up that morning, got dressed, ate breakfast, walked the dog, and tripped over the severed arm of my next door neighbor.”
This concept can also be as simple as swapping a single expected word for something else. I try to do this in my own writing—for example, this sentence from mom:
“A child was raised on stories of crows—dark creatures with black intentions.”
The expected phrasing would be “black creatures with dark intentions,” but a slight reshuffling of those two words makes it a fresher sentence.
Using unexpected phrasing can shake your reader’s attention and keep them engaged with the story and prose.
4. Be accurate and concise
Heavy-handed prose isn’t going to make your imagery more effective. Often, less is more.
Use however many words you need to convey your point, but try to trim back on superfluous prose and really nail down the meat of the sentence.
Writing beautiful prose is similar to writing poetry. You want every word and image to carry its weight.
Many poets will write a first draft of a poem, then pick one or two very strong lines from that draft to write a new poem around. Repeat until every word and line of the poem is as strong as it can be.
Authors who write beautiful prose consider every word and image, weight their effect, and make adjustments.
Writing beautiful prose isn’t just about word usage and imagery—the rhythm of a piece is just as important.
Several factors can influence the rhythm of a bit of writing, including sentence length, syllable balance, internal rhymes, assonance, alliteration…
Sentence length and syllables
The sentence length and syllable count can affect the way a reader paces the scene in their head. Long, flowy sentences can give a feeling of calmness. Long, choppy sentences can make a reader fly through it, giving a sense of speed and urgency.
Shorter sentences might give a feeling of hesitation or confusion.
Lots of medium-length sentences can make it seem like time is moving slower.
Within different sentence lengths, your word choice and length can determine how the pacing and mood come across.
Reading your work out loud is very helpful in gauging how the pacing is affected.
“I inhaled. The concrete pricked my bare feet. I grabbed the ladder rung and steeled myself. Swallowed. The crowd quieted as I took my spot on the diving board.”
“I inhaled and focused on the concrete picking at my bare feet before gripping the ladder rung and hoisting myself onto the diving board.”
The same event is happening in both of those examples, but they have drastically different pacing. What do you feel is the mood of each sentence?
Rhymes, assonance, alliteration
While outright rhyming in regular fiction prose would probably stand out as odd and distracting, utilizing literary elements like internal rhymes, assonance, and alliteration in certain bits of prose can make it musical and poetic.
So depending on your goals and vibe, doing a little bit of poetry in your prose might be nice! Don’t be afraid to play around with sounds in your writing.
6. Ending words/sentences
The last word of a sentence carries a lot of weight. It’s the last thing a reader sees of the sentence, image, or thought, so writers should consider the clause and/or word their sentence leaves on.
Similarly, the last sentence or image of a paragraph, chapter, etc., is important for the same reason.
Excuse 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 that describes a character covered in blood: “His shirt is crusted brown, layered beneath fresh red.”
That sentence could have been something like: “Fresh red and crusted brown layer his shirt.”
“Shirt” isn’t a very scary or interesting word. Ending the sentence with “fresh red” makes the overall image of that sentence the blood, rather than focusing on his shirt.
Give careful consideration to how you end sentences and paragraphs, because the ending is often what sits with your reader.
7. Consider perspective
Anyone can describe a scene. The things you choose to describe and the way you frame them can lead your readers to feeling the way you’d like them to feel.
One of my favorite quotes on writing is from Kait Rokowski:
“Nothing ever ends poetically. It ends and we turn it into poetry. All that blood was never once beautiful. It was just red.”
Writing is more than just a description of a thing. It’s the way the thing is described. When choosing details and framing to focus on in a bit of prose, consider what you want your reader to feel with that description. If you’re writing through a character’s POV, consider how they feel about the thing they’re looking at.
Audience and character perspectives can shift the meaning of anything, so ask yourself what your goal is with each image.
How to write beautiful prose
Writing strong, beautiful prose likely isn’t something that will come easy or quick. It takes practice, intentionality, and staying present with your work.
Intentionally using cliché phrases, specificity, surprises, conciseness, rhythm, endings, and perspective will give you a strong start to creating beautiful writing.
The real writing happens in the edit, so keep hacking at those revisions!