Prose: Poetic, or Pragmatic?



It's a conversation I've had with many, many people.

Would you rather read a book whose prose is poetic (sometimes called purple) or pragmatic (sometimes called utilitarian)?

First off, let's define these things, so we're all on the same page. Poetic prose is when the prose in itself is lovely. It has rhythm, tone, cadence, all the things poetry does so well. From what I've heard, you see this a lot in literary fiction. That's not to say it doesn't appear in other genres at all, just that it's most common in lit fic. THE BOOK THIEF is a great example of this, as is the SHATTER ME series.

Pragmatic prose is more utilitarian in its objectives. Here's a quote I found the other day to help get the idea across:

"In science there is a dictum: don’t add an experiment to an experiment. Don’t make things unnecessarily complicated. In writing fiction, the more fantastic the tale, the plainer the prose should be. Don’t ask your readers to admire your words when you want them to believe your story." - Ben Bova (via writingquotes on tumblr)

Some good examples of this, in my opinion, are the HARRY POTTER books. Very simple, very to-the-point, not flashy or particularly lovely in itself, but it gets the story across.

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As a reader, I think I'm one of the few who actually prefer utilitarian prose. A great book will have both, but I'd much rather not be distracted thinking about the words as opposed to the story. What really irks me is when a book sacrifices story for beauty of the words. In that circumstance, I can't finish it. I would much rather read a strong story with minimalist prose than a weak story that makes me sigh at the beauty of words on every page.

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As a writer let me just say that I believe even pragmatic prose can be poetic, and poetic prose can be pragmatic. They are not an either-or thing, but rather something like a slider bar. Sometimes I find myself on one end, sometimes the other. Ideally you want to have a balance of both.

For me, I draft full-blown utilitarian. I don't have time to think about the right words or the pretty words when I'm just trying to get the story on the page. When I'm revising, however, I try to weed out the words I use too frequently, the ugly words, the anachronistic words.

For most of us the challenge comes, I think, in finding the balance. We want our words to be perceived as lovely, but we don't want the loveliness of our words to distract from the story.

I once heard someone (can't remember who) say that if you only have two or three really poetic sentences in your entire book, you really should cut them. The reason? You can't be a master author for just one sentence. If you're going to put that standard in the book at all, it has to permeate the entire book.

I'm not sure I agree entirely with that statement, but it's worth thinking about. For us as writers, we need to realize that if we can make one sentence in our manuscript shine, we have the ability to do it to the rest of the story. That takes time and effort, but it is possible.

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What are your thoughts, dear readers? In your reading of the many books, do you find yourself leaning more toward the beauty of poetic? Or is it distracting enough that you prefer pragmatic prose?

I'd love to hear your thoughts :)

-DC

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