Prose is just non-verse writing. Pretty much anything other than poetry counts as prose: this article, that textbook in your backpack, the U.S. Constitution, Harry Potter – it’s all prose. The basic defining feature of prose is its lack of line breaks:
In verse, the line ends
when the writer wants it to, but in prose
you just write until you run out of room and then start a new line.
Unlike most other literary devices, prose has a negative definition: in other words, it’s defined by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. (It isn’t verse.) As a result, we have to look pretty closely at verse in order to understand what prose is.
II. Types of Prose
Prose usually appears in one of these three forms.
You’re probably familiar with essays. An essay makes some kind of argument about a specific question or topic. Essays are written in prose because it’s what modern readers are accustomed to.
b. Novels/short stories
When you set out to tell a story in prose, it’s called a novel or short story (depending on length). Stories can also be told through verse, but it’s less common nowadays. Books like Harry Potter and the Fault in Our Stars are written in prose.
c. Nonfiction books
If it’s true, it’s nonfiction. Essays are a kind of nonfiction, but not the only kind. Sometimes, a nonfiction book is just written for entertainment (e.g. David Sedaris’s nonfiction comedy books), or to inform (e.g. a textbook), but not to argue. Again, there’s plenty of nonfiction verse, too, but most nonfiction is written in prose.
III. Examples of Prose
The Bible is usually printed in prose form, unlike the Islamic Qur’an, which is printed in verse. This difference suggests one of the differences between the two ancient cultures that produced these texts: the classical Arabs who first wrote down the Qur’an were a community of poets, and their literature was much more focused on verse than on stories. The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, were more a community of storytellers than poets, so their holy book was written in a more narrative prose form.
Although poetry is almost always written in verse, there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” Prose poetry lacks line breaks, but still has the rhythms of verse poetry and focuses on the sound of the words as well as their meaning. It’s the same as other kinds of poetry except for its lack of line breaks.
IV. The Importance of Prose
Prose is ever-present in our lives, and we pretty much always take it for granted. It seems like the most obvious, natural way to write. But if you stop and think, it’s not totally obvious. After all, people often speak in short phrases with pauses in between – more like lines of poetry than the long, unbroken lines of prose. It’s also easier to read verse, since it’s easier for the eye to follow a short line than a long, unbroken one.
For all of these reasons, it might seem like verse is actually a more natural way of writing! And indeed, we know from archaeological digs that early cultures usually wrote in verse rather than prose. The dominance of prose is a relatively modern trend.
So why do we moderns prefer prose? The answer is probably just that it’s more efficient! Without line breaks, you can fill the entire page with words, meaning it takes less paper to write the same number of words. Before the industrial revolution, paper was very expensive, and early writers may have given up on poetry because it was cheaper to write prose.
V. Examples of Prose in Literature
Although Shakespeare was a poet, his plays are primarily written in prose. He loved to play around with the difference between prose and verse, and if you look closely you can see the purpose behind it: the “regular people” in his plays usually speak in prose – their words are “prosaic” and therefore don’t need to be elevated. Heroic and noble characters, by contrast, speak in verse to highlight the beauty and importance of what they have to say.
Flip open Moby-Dick to a random page, and you’ll probably find a lot of prose. But there are a few exceptions: short sections written in verse. There are many theories as to why Herman Melville chose to write his book this way, but it probably was due in large part to Shakespeare. Melville was very interested in Shakespeare and other classic authors who used verse more extensively, and he may have decided to imitate them by including a few verse sections in his prose novel.
VI. Examples of Prose in Pop Culture
Philosophy has been written in prose since the time of Plato and Aristotle. If you look at a standard philosophy book, you’ll find that it has a regular paragraph structure, but no creative line breaks like you’d see in poetry. No one is exactly sure why this should be true – after all, couldn’t you write a philosophical argument with line breaks in it? Some philosophers, like Nietzsche, have actually experimented with this. But it hasn’t really caught on, and the vast majority of philosophy is still written in prose form.
In the Internet age, we’re very familiar with prose – nearly all blogs and emails are written in prose form. In fact, it would look pretty strange if this were not the case!
Imagine if you had a professor
who wrote class emails
in verse form, with odd
line breaks in the middle
of the email.
VII. Related Terms
Verse is the opposite of prose: it’s the style of writing
that has line breaks.
Most commonly used in poetry, it tends to have rhythm and rhyme but doesn’t necessarily have these features. Anything with artistic line breaks counts as verse.
18th-century authors saw poetry as a more elevated form of writing – it was a way of reaching for the mysterious and the heavenly. In contrast, prose was for writing about ordinary, everyday topics. As a result, the adjective “prosaic” (meaning prose-like) came to mean “ordinary, unremarkable.”
Prosody is the pleasing sound of words when they come together. Verse and prose can both benefit from having better prosody, since this makes the writing more enjoyable to a reader.
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As a creative writing teacher, a common question I get asked is “what is prose in writing?” The term prose simply refers to written or spoken language. In the context of books and authors, it describes a style of writing, distinct from poetry or metrics.
But crucially for writers, how do we improve our prose when writing? How can we create vivid descriptions that draw readers deeper into our story and world?
Below, we’ll explain the types of prose and prose style, focusing on the two main approaches—Orwellian prose, also known as the clear pane of glass, and the stained glass window, which is more of a florid approach.
As well as looking at these two methods of writing prose, we’ll also take a look at ways you can improve your writing.
Choose A Chapter
What Is Prose Writing?
So what does prose mean exactly? It’s a form of language that carries no formal structure. How we think, speak and write would be described as prose. When we write it, we apply a grammatical structure. This is different to poetry, which applies a rhythmic structure.
How To Write Prose
We begin this guide on how to write prose with a look at two styles or approaches. These forms of prose tend to dominate:
First, we’ll have a look at each, before going on to discuss how you can achieve them. By the end, you’ll have all the answers to the question, what is prose writing?
How to write prose
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “good prose is like a window pane” and wanted to know the meaning behind it, here it is.
George Orwell in his essay, Politics and the English Language, set out what he thinks good prose ought to consist of, all the while attacking the political system for the destruction of good writing practices.
Orwell was very much against the over-complication of language, which at the time (1946), was the direction politics was taking, and unfortunately still takes today, but that’s a whole other topic.
Orwell believed prose should be like looking through a clear pane of glass at the story unfolding on the other side. The writing should be invisible, drawing as little attention to itself as possible.
The reader shouldn’t have to stop to re-read a sentence due to poor construction or stumble over a word used in the wrong way.
Words should be chosen because of their meaning, and to make them clearer, images or idioms, such as metaphors and similes, should be conjured. He encouraged the use of ‘newly invented metaphors’ which “assists thought by evoking a visual image”.
Orwell encouraged writers to use the fewest and shortest words that will express the meaning you want. “Let the meaning choose the word.” If you can’t explain something in short, simple terms, you don’t understand it.
A change in the language provoked Orwell to write his essay. Pretentious diction, as he called it—words such as phenomenon, element, objective, eliminate and liquidate—is used to dress up simple statements.
He blamed politics for this, and how politicians adopt hollow words and phrases, mechanically repeating them over and over until they become meaningless. I’m sure we can all agree we’re fed up of hearing such phrases.
Orwell used ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ as an example, and more recently we’ve seen Theresa May butcher the phrase ‘strong and stable’. I’m sure Trump has a few, yes he does.
These phrases are vague and bland and do not evoke any imagery, and if you’re a writer, they’re things you ought to avoid.
Orwell provided six rules to remember when writing prose:
So in summary, Orwellian prose is that which is short, simple and crucially, understandable. And if you’re looking for a simple and effective method of how to write prose, here it is.
The Stained Glass Window
When we explore answers to the question, what is prose writing, one approach we inevitably turn to is the stained glass window—the antithesis to Orwell’s clear pane method.
With a stained glass window approach, you can still see the story on the other side, but the stained glass is colouring it in interesting ways. Language and structure are florid and creative.
It’s used more in literary fiction and requires a mastery of language to pull off. Brandon Sanderson refers to it as the artist’s style of prose, whereas Orwellian prose he regards as the craftsman’s style.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘purple prose’. This is an attempt at creating a stained glass window, but the description and structure are poor, rendering the prose incomprehensible.
A blend of the clear pane and stained pane can work well. Tolkien often adopted this, particularly with his descriptions, and other writers, Sanderson and David Gemmell to name but two, like to start chapters in a florid way before transitioning into the clear pane. It depends on the scene.
In fight scenes, for example, simple language is best adopted so the reader’s flow isn’t disrupted. When describing places, people or settings colourful language works well to liven up what would otherwise be quite mundane passages.
Here’s a five minute bit from a Brandon Sanderson lecture, complete with a dubious hat, on Orwellian prose.
My personal preference is toward Orwellian prose. Writing should be clear and accessible to all. Surely as writers, that’s what we want—to have our stories read and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Having spent years working as a lawyer I know it’s not the case, and Orwell’s fears back in 1946 continue to materialise. In the end, I regarded my role as a lawyer as more of a translator of legal jargon. Writing should not be this way. So how do you achieve a clear pane of glass?
So far in this guide on how to write prose, we’ve looked at the different approaches. Now we’re looking at the practical side of things—how we actually write great prose. Here are a few tips to help you achieve that Orwellian style of writing:
Remember Orwell’s rule: if you can cut out a word, do it. When it comes to prose, less is more. That’s a good guideline to remember when answering the question, what is prose writing?
“… The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet the bread to the wise, nor yet the riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill …”
It may be a little arduous to ask yourself these questions when writing every sentence, but when it comes to editing they should certainly enter your mind.
What Is Prose Writing – More Answers and Resources
I’ve included a few other materials for you to further your reading.
Check out this English literature writing guide by the University of Edinburgh
If you’d like to study creative writing prose fiction, check out this writing course offered by the University of East Anglia.
To learn more about using the 5 senses in writing, check out this guide.
Learn how to find the best podcasts for writers in this detailed guide
Head here for advice on when to rewrite your story.
Check out this guide featuring tips on concise and clear writing.
And for more on character development and how to write a plot, head here.
What Is Prose Writing? – FAQs
Is prose easy to write?
Prose relates to ordinary everyday speech, so it’s arguably easier to write than poetry. However, many writers fall into the trap of writing ‘purple prose’, which is easy to write but not very good to read.
What is the prose format?
Prose carries with it no formal or set structure. It does, however, apply the general principles of grammar. It often reflects common or conversational speech.
What does prose mean?
Prose means the ordinary language that’s spoken or written. It is often distinguished from poetry due to its lack of a rhythmic structure.
What is a piece of prose writing?
In writing, prose relates to any form of written work in which the general rules of grammar and structure are followed. This is distinct from poetry, which follows a more rhythmic structure.
What does prose mean in writing?
In the context of writing, prose refers to words assembled in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise describe as poetry or non-rhythmic.
What does ‘written in prose’ mean?
Written in prose simply means that a piece of text has been written down in a non-rhythmic way.
What is a prose writing style?
There are two main types of prose writing style—George Orwell’s the clear pane of glass, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the stained glass window. Orwell believed in clear and simple language. The stained glass window, on the other hand, opts for a more florid style.
How can I learn prose?
Learning how to write prose isn’t as hard as you might think. It’s all about practice. The more you write, the sharper your use of words will be, so too your sentence structure, among other things. This is the process of you finding your style, your voice, which is the end-goal of learning how to write prose.
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Thank you for reading this guide on how to write prose. Hopefully, this post has shed light on the mysteries of prose and how you can achieve that clear, readable style.
If you’d like more help with your writing or would like to connect with like-minded writers, why not join my online writing community. There are hundreds of us all sharing advice, tips, calls for submissions, and helping each other out with our stories.
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Richie Billing writes fantasy fiction, historical fiction and stories of a darker nature. He's had over a dozen short stories published in various magazines and journals, with one adapted for BBC radio. In 2021 his debut novel, Pariah's Lament, an epic fantasy, was published by Of Metal and Magic. Richie also runs The Fantasy Writers' Toolshed, a podcast devoted to helping writers improve their craft.
Most nights you can find him up into the wee hours scribbling away or watching the NBA.