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Arts & Entertainment

Prose Style and Texture

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 10:44 min

Learn the difference between style and description as Margaret illustrates two different prose style extremes—baroque and plainsong.

Margaret Atwood
Teaches Creative Writing
Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.
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The units of language are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, et cetera. But at the micro level, they are letters and sounds. And part of a texture is how those words sound. I think it was Robert Graves who used to say that he had an exercise called "getting the geese out," which was going through his text and removing Ses that were making a hissing sound. That's why he said getting the geese out. And for that, it's very useful to read your text out loud to see how it sounds, because a text is a score for voice. And if you're writing something that comes out sounding like simple Simon stuck a seashell on the seashore, there just may be too much of that S and "sh" kind of sound. The same goes for sounds like P if there's too much popping. If there's too much of one letter, people will think you're doing it on purpose for a reason. So if there's too much what we call "onomatopoeia," words that sound like the thing they're describing-- Tennyson's line, the murmuring of innumerable bees. He does that on purpose to sound like bees. So if you're going to have repeated sounds, make sure you're doing it on purpose. And similarly, if you're slipping into iambic pentameter, which people often do, you ought to be able to hear that. Are you intending it or not? So that's the basic thing about texture. How does it sound? How does it sound when you read it out loud? [MUSIC PLAYING] So at the extremes, you could say that there are two kinds of style. One is plainsong, in which the sentences are fairly short. They don't have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. They're fairly blunt and straightforward. The other you could call Baroque, in which the language is very ornamented. So it could have a lot of subordinate clauses. It can have a lot of adjectives and adverbs. It could have a kind of pile on of detail, a pile on of syllables. And most people are somewhere in between there. Things got a lot more plainsong with the advent of writers like Hemingway and Graham Greene. But then they got more Baroque with the advent of writers like Angela Carter, who is very Baroque indeed. There is no one good style. Some people have styles that they prefer. So it is a question of what you're using your language for, what sort of-- let us say, what sort of spell you're trying to cast or what kind of illusion you're trying to practice. [MUSIC PLAYING] Let's do Baroque first. Charles Dickens is a very Baroque writer. He piles on the detail. He piles on the adjectives. He was very fond of the theater, so he likes to-- if it were theater, you would say he was hamming it up. So what could be better than to start with "A Christmas Carol" and the description of Scrooge. "Oh, but he was a tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone Scrooge. A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire. Sacred and self-contained and solitary as an oyster....

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This was one of my favorites. I absolutely loved this class. Production well done!

I learned about keeping the readers attention, the power of tense and how to flip my bloomers/drawstring underwear into my purse Margaret Atwood style... with a cute smile. Fabulous class! Rhonda Ricardo

I'm so sad that this class has ended. She is a true Master at teaching writing and also has an interesting personality. I just fell in love with Margaret Atwood!! Great advice, great ideas, straight forward, realistic and artistic.

Whilst MA doesn't tell us anything we probably don't already know it's an inspirational journey and insightful collection of anecdotes.


A fellow student

Just did the exercise of taking an event to write in the plainsong then Baroque style. Wow -great! On the scale, I tend to be just pass the halfway mark - on the Baroque side. But challenging myself to write in the plainsong I realized I can do it. It is less mental exertion for sure, came out of me faster - though I had to sometimes pause to figure out how to describe something without a lot of extras verbose. I really loved this style in it's simplicity to be able to get the point across, quickly. Not getting lost in the vision in my head too much. When I got to the Baroque side, I dolled it up even more than usual and really loved describing things non-literally as well. I loved getting lost in the vision I could feel inside of me, then finding the words to translate this onto page. It was definitely more painstakingly slow, yet the results are beautiful in the feel and texture of the prose. I can already feel how I could play around with both these styles to create different characters even within my stories. And of course create different feels between stories if I wanted to. Feel like it would be fabulous to even write a story in both manners and publish in the same book. How fun!

Katherine Mercè C.

Ms. Margaret: You are the new sister and friend I wish to call for writing companionship as well as everything else. You had me at "a text is a score for voice." Thank you for your genius, your wit and your style. You have given me a response for when I am told my writing is too floaty. I will explain "you see, my style is baroque." In all seriousness I am watching from a safe place in the north of California in the middle of a pandemic. And because of this masterclass I have come to life. Thank you, thank you. Ms. Katherine

Michael T.

I very much liked it. I have never heard about plainsong or baroque writing so that was fascinating, and I simply enjoy Ms.Atwood's personality too, like a teacher I would have enjoyed having in school; authoritative and kind at the same time.

Travis G.

Enraptured. That was the fastest 10 minutes and 43 seconds of my life. Addicted!

Dan U.

Excellent! This is vital! One has to present a story in an entertains, creative manner with several tools in one’s tool box and in one’s voice. This is a gift. Dicken’s just pours it pulling rabbits out of his hat. The other just matter a won’t catch me in a lie or exaggerating because I don’t want to be ridiculed is the sense I get in the second reading. Great!

Carmen A.

"what sort of spell you are trying to cast", that opened up a whole new way of thinking for me in my storytelling! a new secret door...

John D.

Very insightful lesson. I will try the suggested exercise at the end and will aim to be mindful of the prose styles used in the books that I read in the future.


The examples used to differentiate plainsong and baroque were very helpful!

Suzanne B.

I'm not sure what my "style" is exactly except to say I know I like to vary my sentences relative to the moment in the narrative. I cut back a lot as I revise, but I do prefer to adjust the pace and texture based on what's happening. Is the moment tense, dangerous, funny, hectic . . . I guess that puts me squarely in the middle, doesn't it?

Sara H.

I wrote my first novel with a lot of imagery and metaphor, and the second with very little - I used my own 'dogma' rules, no adverbs, few adjectives, no 'set-ups' (preamble or explanation). It will be fun to come back to colour and play.