Is your writing like a windowpane?

Good prose is like a windowpane.

You’ll find that quote in Why I Write, an essay by author George Orwell. The sentence caused me to stop and give it a careful think. What does it mean? Does Orwell mean for us to write in a way that reflects our own lives? Should our writing be a window to new adventures for the reader? Is our writing to show imperfections and fragility?

For help, I pulled out my trusty dictionary and looked up a few words. What does it mean for good prose to be like a windowpane?

First things first: What is prose?

As you learn more about writing, you will find terms that group writers, describe words, and categorize stories. Prose is a lovely word to say, yet it describes writing that uses everyday language and speaking patterns, as opposed to the rhythmic language of poetry. News articles, novels, essays, short stories, and this blog post are all examples of prose.

So, Orwell encouraged writers like you and me to take what we write and make those words act like a windowpane.

The purpose of a windowpane

A windowpane is a framed sheet of glass. Glass is transparent. Therefore “Good prose is” transparent. Here’s what the dictionary says about transparent:

  1. Fine or sheer enough to be seen through.
  2. Free from pretense or deceit; frank
  3. Easily detected or seen through; obvious
  4. Readily understood
  5. Characterized by visibility or accessibility of information

Do you see what Orwell was trying to express? Good writing will allow the reader to see the story and its message clearly. There will be no attention called to the mechanical words when prose is written like a windowpane.

Do you need that word?

Earlier this week, a fellow writer/blogger commented on a short story I’ve begun to write. She suggested that I remove a word because it didn’t add anything to the story. Once the word was gone, she said, the sentence would be “effective and tight.” I took her advice and she was right. Effective and tight. I like that, so I’ve placed that duo in my writer’s toolbox.

A quote from Canadian author Ralph Milton sums it up:

Writers … use the same words everyone uses, but when we get it right, the emotions, the feelings, the concepts, the images, the ideas are distilled with clarity and force. Then nobody notices our words. … Like cleaning a window. When you do it right, and the light shines through and you don’t notice the glass. (Angels in Red Suspenders, 1998)

Write so they can see

So, the challenge is to write only what we want our readers to see. Sounds like another course in the craft of writing. Here’s are ideas to help you start putting those windowpanes into place:

  • Share your work to gain advice
  • Review your stories and look for spots on the windowpane
  • Re-read books that made you forget the words and see the story
  • Study those authors’ techniques and put them into practice
  • Practice, practice, and practice some more

Let the window cleaning begin!

Question: Do you agree with my explanation of Orwell’s quote? How would you explain it?


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