Skip to main content
Northwestern University
Image with text asking what makes prose beautiful in varying fonts and cursiveleft

Uncommon Thinking: What Makes Prose Beautiful

Indira Raman is the Bill and Gayle Cook Professor of Neurobiology.
The precision of language — making use of the wonderful richness and delicate nuances of the denotative and connotative meanings of words to transfer a vivid, evocative, high-resolution understanding of the ideas of one mind into another mind — even better when the writer has a sensitivity to the sonorities of phrases and the cadences of speech, so that the transmission is less of a lecture and more of a song.

Jorg Kreienbrock is an associate professor of German and comparative literature.
The German-Jewish philosopher, writer and critic Walter Benjamin points out a peculiar proximity between prose and poetry: “A period that, constructed metrically, afterward has its rhythm upset at a single point yields the finest prose sentence imaginable.”

What makes prose beautiful, if one follows Benjamin’s insight, are those single points where prose and poetry coincide. Beautiful prose is upset poetry. The finest prose sentence imaginable is the result of a disturbance, an upsetting irregularity, the caesura of the lyric.

What makes prose beautiful, then, is not a fascinating plot, interesting characters, or moral/political messages, but singular instances of rhythmic upsets, yielding the finest prose imaginable. 

Dan Chaon '86, whose most recent novel is Ill Will (Ballantine Books, 2017), teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio.
In college, I fell in love with the last paragraph of James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” The iambic, wave-like rhythms, the hypnotic repetition, the symphonic rise of the diction and emotion — it’s very close to singing. As a beginning writer, thought this was the only true goal. But while this kind of aria-like writing can swell the heart, it always runs the risk of becoming an Adele song, arms thrown wide, theatrical and slightly corny.

Some writers rarely choose that operatic register. Joy Williams’ prose is often oddly wooden, and George Saunders plays with the language of jargon and slang — though they are writers I admire. What I look for in my students’ work is simply “surprise”— something that’s vivid, that has an indelible image or observation in it, that’s concise while still being open to the mysterious and uncanny.

Evie Shockley ’88 is an award-winning poet, essayist and critic. She teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University.
As a poet, I’m inclined to say: its proximity to poetry. Another way of putting this is to say that, for the reader, prose is beautiful when it strikes that lovely balance between recognition (the expression of feelings or ideas that ring true to one’s own experience) and surprise (the use of language that is not full of the “dead metaphors” of our everyday linguistic register).

The writing can be simple, of course, or baroque; it can be earthy and direct, or exquisite and slant. But what matters most is that it is at once absolutely apt and excitingly unfamiliar, capturing a truth that we can feel as deeply as our own organs, even as we are able — forced — to see it as if for the first time.

Jeannie Vanasco ’06 is a poet and memoirist. She teaches creative nonfiction at Towson University.
In beautiful prose, the shapes and sounds of words form an experience. And each word, like a good citizen, helps its neighbors. “Porch,” for example, makes a colorless word such as “or” sound extraordinary. But if each sentence is selfish, caring only about its own beauty, then the larger passage risks sounding incoherent instead of incantatory.

When I revise my writing, I survey my sentences like a census taker: How many stressed syllables live here? Are all the words working? Are any of the words related despite their different names? I could yack on about practical tactics (land hard on a word that sounds hard), but not every sentence needs perfect acoustics. And I hate to be too prescriptive. When it comes to writing, successfully breaking the rules strikes me as more beautiful.

Nora Harris ’18 is a Weinberg College creative writing major.
In her book Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum argues that literature is essential for creating world citizens, because it cultivates “in ourselves a capacity for sympathetic imagination that will enable us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves.” 

Prose is beautiful, because it creates empathy. It allows us to walk in another’s shoes briefly as we experience what life is like in another body. Prose is beautiful, because it connects us all as human beings, despite our broad range of experiences and beliefs.

Back to top