As writers, we tend to focus on what we think is important in the act of storytelling: plot, motivation, character development, pacing, arc. Of course, those are all great aspects and writers should pay attention to them but how many writers pay an equal amount of attention to the words they put on the paper, to the structure and length of their sentences. In short, to their prose?
I like to think of a story as a giant block of clay and the words as my tools, carving away at it. It’s a visual that helps me elevate my writing beyond just telling a story.
But I have had students ask me, “why is this important? Isn’t the story the reason the reader is engaging with my writing?” The answer I give them is, “yes, the story is important but how engaged are your readers? Your prose is yet another tool to create connection between reader and writing.”
Writers must use all the tools available to them to keep the reader focused and interested. Readers are fickle creatures, prone to boredom and distraction. Come on, face it. As writers we are competing against the likes of Lost, True Blood, and a longer work week with less free time.
Engaging and exciting writing (with different sentence lengths, different grammatical structures, different words) is yet another way to capture a readers attention. Think of it like driving. What would you rather drive: a straight, long highway with no end in sight or something with an occasional turn, maybe a stoplight, or a town to pass through? I would argue that most readers want the later because it adds the element of “unpredictability” to your story. Remember that reading (and our interaction with language) is a very deep, psychological process. By adding variety to our writing, we engage with that process and create a level of engagement with the reader not otherwise there.
And that’s what most writers fail to realize: the impact of word choice and sentence structure on the reading experience. Readers want to be visually stimulated as much as they are looking for an emotional connection to your characters. Of course, you could just make all sorts of different type faces and put in occasional pictures but I’d argue that those are visual distractions ultimately detracting from the reader’s connection with your writing.
The question, then, is when does this creep into the writing? Should a writer concentrate on it during an initial draft? Is this something that an editor should do after everything has been accomplished?
This really depends on the writer. Mixing sentence and paragraph lengths, ensuring that a repetition of words is kept to a minimum, infusing the prose with different grammatical elements has become a natural extension of my writing. I find myself doing it even as I am putting thought to pen to paper (although I always do more tweaking during the editing phase). Re-reading a book by one of my favorite authors (Clive Barker, The Great and Secret Show; yes, it’s the Kindle e-book version), I am reminded again how important prose is. Clive does such a spectacular job with his prose and as I read I often see a painter in front of his canvas, sometimes with wide swashes of the brush and other times with a masterful eye to the details.
Regardless of when you chose to do it, I implore writers of all levels and experience to pay attention to their prose, to provide not only a richer environment for their story and characters but also to give their reader a variety of writing that only enhances their overall experience with your work.