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Serving Up Easy-to-Read Prose

J. Greg Phelan discusses how to make our prose digestible for our novel and memoir readers.

By J. Greg Phelan

April 06, 2023

My wife received awesome feedback on a project she’s working on to improve New Jersey’s early reading education. (My wife rocks BTW). Her advisor said she needed to hone her pitch to be as simple as possible. You don’t feed meat to a baby, her advisor said, which made us both laugh. You certainly don’t.

The readers of our memoirs and novels aren’t babies, of course. They’re intelligent, smart, and curious. We need to trust them. Not spell everything out. That would make it too easy, wouldn’t it? We need to serve them meat. Make our prose meaty!

Well, yes. But even more important we have to make our prose easy to chew. Digestible.

In fact, I think our job as writers is to make it as easy as possible for readers to slip into our invented world, so our cherished readers don’t have to figure out what we mean to say, what we mean to show them, what our characters’ motivations and desires are, what story we want to tell.

Our job and it’s a hard one, taking many, many, many revisions, is to make our stories go down easy. Like a bird mama chewing up food and regurgitating it into her babies’ mouths, we need to do most of the work for our readers. Through revision, we must seek out and fix every glitch and distraction that might prevent the words on the page from being transformed into a vivid story unfolding in our readers’ minds.

Co-creating the story is challenging enough without grappling with ambiguity, confusion, or half-baked prose. Or when we withhold critical information in the vague hope it will heighten the suspense when all that does is frustrate our readers. Life––and well-wrought, pleasing-to-read memoirs and novels––are mysterious enough when all the information is readily available, well-rendered, and crystal clear.

Our readers might not be our babies, but we need to treat them with just as much care. And so we don’t serve them tough-to-chew-and-digest sentences and paragraphs and pages. We nourish them with finely honed, easy-to-read, tasty prose.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.