When you read the title for this article, you may think the statement is pretty obvious. Sadly, however, prose and storytelling are concepts that are too often joined into one word, “writing,” to the detriment of those trying to improve their craft.
Take a creative writing class in college. Become a better writer by reading Stephen King’s On Writing. An experienced “writer” will understand all the facets behind improving your “writing,” but newer writers often see this word and conflate the skill with prose and that of storytelling.
Newer writers think that improving their prose equates to better storytelling. One does not follow the other.
You could spend years working on improving your ability to churn out tight, thoughtful prose, but make no improvement on your ability to tell a story. In fact, I think this attributes to why some people can pen manuscript after manuscript and still fail at finding their dream agent or that book deal.
There are plenty of wildly successful authors who wrote bestselling books with simple prose. Hemingway is the quintessential example. According to this article on LitCharts, Hemingway’s prose clock in at 7 words shorter than a typical writer’s. His vocabulary size is up to one-fourth of a typical writer’s. A lack of flavorful prose isn’t what makes his writing so special though. A more controversial example would be Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight Saga. Whenever I hear people trashing Twilight and citing Meyer’s sentence quality as an example of what’s wrong with mainstream fiction, all I hear is an inability to understand why those books did so well. You don’t need to be a genius with prose to write a successful story. In fact, you don’t even need to be very good at it.
Whether you’re trying to find an agent, a book deal, or just answer the question as to why you can’t engage your readers, ask yourself this: How much time have you devoted to making your prose as tight and interesting as possible, and how much time have you devoted to improving how you develop a story arc? Having nice prose is a bonus, but an agent or editor will have a much easier time coaching prose than they will storytelling. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say they would much prefer a great storyteller with average prose than an average storyteller with fantastic prose.
One of the best pieces of advice you can get to improve your writing is to read as much as possible. By reading, you get the best of both worlds – you learn sentence flow and clarity of thought, but you also get a feel for pacing, plot/character development, character desire, and everything in between.
Or, if you’re looking for something more helpful in this post beyond the typical two cents of “read more,” consider watching Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on plot. It’s packed with helpful advice on how to create plot, character arcs, and more.
Also, I’ll always be an avid supporter of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. Understanding how plot and character arcs intertwine became so much easier to grasp after reading her book.