One mistake that many new writers make is overwriting, or decorating their prose with overly ornate language when just a few, simpler words would have a greater impact. This type of overwriting is known as purple prose.
Often, this mistake stems from the misconception that good writing has to sound formal, academic, and jammed full of SAT vocabulary words. But if we actually look at examples of writing that’s been recognized as “good,” we’ll see that this is rarely the case.
The ability to say more with fewer words is a sign of a talented writer. To get there, you’ll need to learn how to identify purple prose, eliminate it from your writing, and replace it with more powerful language.
What Is Purple Prose?
In literary criticism, the term “purple prose” is used to described writing that is over-embellished with adjectives and ornate language that does nothing to serve the text.
Some common attributes of purple prose include:
- long strings of multisyllabic words
- run-on sentences
- over-dependence on adjectives and adverbs
- never-ending blocks of dense text
- excessive use of figurative language
Remember back in grade school when your teachers taught you about adjectives? They’d have you practice writing detailed descriptions, often by using a thesaurus to whip up new and original modifiers, which you’d then string together into one endless sentence.
That’s kind of what purple prose looks like. It’s a great exercise for teaching kids new words, but in the grown-up world, it’s a key indicator of weak and amateur writing.
Why Purple Prose Is Bad for Your Writing
While a purple passage here and there might seem harmless, this type of overwriting can seriously distract your readers.
- Purple prose is self-absorbed; it draws attention to itself, and away from your actual story or thesis.
- It tends to be convoluted, which makes it hard to read smoothly and can interrupt pacing.
- Most of it is unnecessary, and could be said in far fewer words, which is why it’s a sign of weak writing. Skilled writers know how to say more with just a handful of strong words.
Yet, many writers continue to use this unnecessary language simply because it appears more literary. From a distance, a series of long, fancy adjectives and adverbs might look impressive and eloquent.
However, once you take a closer look, it’s clear that all those words really aren’t doing your writing any favors, but actually weighing it down and making your readers take the long way around to understand your story.
How to Avoid Purple Prose
Use these 4 tips to avoid purple prose in your writing and create descriptions that pack more power in fewer words.
1. Remember that less is probably more.
Just like your blind date who overcompensated for their insecurities by writing a 2,000-word profile, when it comes to writing, “too much” is rarely enough.
If you find that your paragraphs seem to ramble on without actually moving your story anywhere, it’s time to start cutting.
As you learn to be more concise, you’ll master the skill of choosing the right words, rather than the most words. Opt for strong verbs that will allow you to say more with less. Eliminate unnecessary adjectives, and learn how to show, not tell, in your writing.
2. Write in your own voice.
One of the most common reasons that new writers fall victim to purple prose is that they try to imitate what they believe is “sophisticated” writing.
But just adding sophisticated words will do the exact opposite to your writing, so your best bet is to write in your own voice.
Of course, you’ll probably give each of your characters their own personalities and “voices” too, but when it comes to penning your prose, don’t reach for words that you yourself would never use. Doing so is basically like traveling to a foreign country and pretending to know the language when you don’t: people will notice!
3. Focus on the story.
Your first priority when it comes to writing fiction should be writing a good story. This means that you should focus on substance, rather than fancy words and ornate language.
You can inject your writing with as many SAT words as you’d like, but they won’t change anything if your story lacks substance.
To stay focused on what matters, create an outline before you start writing, and use it to stay on track. Your first drafts should be focused on the progress and development of your story; don’t worry about finding the absolute best word right now. If you’d like, mark that passage and come back to it later if you’d like to polish your language.
This also means not being overdependent on your thesaurus: you don’t need to find complicated adjectives for everything you describe in your novel! Sometimes simpler is much better.
4. Read good writing.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: if you want to produce good writing, you need to read good writing!
Not all good writing is exactly the same: there are millions of ways authors can use tone, style, and voice to create unforgettable prose. But in general, good writing is free of purple prose and doesn’t need to rely on complex words and sentences to evoke feelings and emotion in their readers.
For examples of writing that’s widely considered “good,” try a few selections from our Best Books to Read Before You Die list.
Examples of Overwriting
Even talented and experienced writers aren’t immune to purple prose. Just take this example from John Updike’s Of the Farm: these two sentences are overrun with adverbs, similes, adjectives stacked one on top of the other—all to say that every once in a while, he looks out this window, which is now marked with raindrops.
“It was a window enchanted by the rarity with which I looked from it. Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain.”
Here’s another example from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer:
“His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.“
We get it. He sparkles. Correction—he literally sparkles. Does he really need to be “incandescent,” too?
Examples of Strong Descriptions
Compare the examples of purple prose above with the following examples of succinct, powerful writing. Notice how even simple words and phrases can actually tell us more about a person or place than a laundry list of adjectives.
“They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.“
This excerpt from Ernest Hemingways essay “Notes on the Next War” contains no fanciful language, no complicated metaphors. The sentences are short and simple, yet the message is incredibly powerful and gut-wrenching in a way that almost sneaks up on you, unlike purple prose, which spends a good deal of time building itself up to a disappointing finish.
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.“
The above passage is from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s descriptive in a way that’s simple and straightforward, but yet reveals a lot about the space we’re exploring. It’s suggestive of a sinister past, but the author didn’t need to over-explain the implications behind “they’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.”
Tips for More Effective Writing
If you want your writing to be more effective, your best bet may be to opt for simpler, more concise language.
Most importantly, find your own voice and identify the ideas you want to communicate. This will help you to authentically connect with your audience and ensure that they become loyal readers.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
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