I recently finished reading the latest novel from Jeff Lindsay’s renowned Dexter series (“Double Dexter” for those keeping score at home), which was also the inspiration for the Dexter television series. If I’m being honest, I think this was one of the weaker installments of the series, but I was once again struck by the quality of Lindsay’s delightfully witty prose.
Jeff Lindsay is one of those rare writers who can truly claim to be an artist with words. His prose is vibrant and brimming with wit, and it’s honestly the best part of the books.
But that’s just the thing: this talent is very, very rare. I can count on one hand the number of authors I’ve read whose prose was a significant part of what made their work enjoyable. (For the record, the others are Douglas Adams, Glen Cook, and James Maxey.)
I’m not talking about writers who can occasionally pull off a brilliant metaphor or a perfectly paced piece of dialogue. I’m talking about someone whose writing is consistently delightful, who could write about the most mundane subject and make it interesting purely through their use of words. One of the funniest things by Douglas Adams that I ever read was a description of his own nose.
I find, however, that many writers — be they professional or amateur — still focus heavily on this one aspect of the writer’s craft. They seem to feel their work is not valid unless their prose is on par with that of the greats, that their worth as a writer is determined largely or solely by the quality of their prose.
There’s an entire genre devoted to this. Literary fiction is largely about pursuing the most artful prose.
But it’s brutal honesty time. The fact is that the vast majority of writers are not capable of producing truly brilliant prose, and most of the people who pursue it are probably wasting their time. You’re not Jeff Lindsay, and you shouldn’t try to be.
But that’s okay:
Writing good prose is an important part of being a writer, but it’s only one part. By focusing myopically on this one aspect, you risk neglecting everything else about your story.
This is part of why I could never get into literary fiction. Most of the writers seem so caught up in trying to perfect their prose that they forget to actually tell an interesting story or create characters that I want to read about.
And here’s the most important thing: those authors who sacrificed everything in pursuit of perfect prose? Their writing still wasn’t that good. Why?
Because they’re not Jeff Lindsay.
Most people seem to think writers are born, not made. I disagree. I certainly don’t believe I was born with any particular talent as a writer. I do have a natural inclination towards the creation of stories and worlds, but that alone does not a writer make. Any skill I have as a writer has come through years of study and hard work, and I think anyone could become a decent writer with enough effort.
However, if you want to truly be a master wordsmith, to be able to weave metaphors and imagery like a Lindsay or a Cook, I think that may require some inborn talent.
I’m not saying, “Can’t win; don’t try.” What I am saying is, “Know your limits.”
The fact is it’s okay if your prose is ordinary. As long as it tells the story effectively, you can afford to stand on your other strengths as a writer.
For the record, I very much count myself in this category. I know my prose is nothing special, and I know it never will be. I simply try to make it good enough to tell the story as best as I am able. I guess you could say I view myself as a bit like a reporter: there are scenes playing out in my head, and I’m just trying to describe them as accurately as possible.
Most writers are in this category, frankly, including most of my favourites. J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Ian Irvine, and H.G. Wells are all examples of brilliant writers with unremarkable prose.
Good prose isn’t everything. A book with a gripping plot and engrossing characters can be successful — both economically and artistically — without exemplary use of words.
Remember what I said at the start of this post. Despite its brilliant prose, “Double Dexter” was still a fairly mediocre book.
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