Purple prose: What it is and how to avoid it.

purple prose (via Failbook.Failblog.org)

Purple prose is the name given to writing — or, well, prose– that’s just too flowery and too melodramatic for its own good. In other words, just way too much.

“Why would purple prose be a bad thing?”

Well, it clouds the meaning behind your writing and, frankly, doesn’t flatter the writer very well. By its sheer verbosity, purple prose can turn off your reader greatly– which is not a good thing to do if your reader happens to be your professor.

That being said, there actually is no ultimate, absolute definition of what constitutes prose, nor is there a definite list of symptoms. Figuring out whether you have in fact fallen victim to purple prose is often a subjective decision– one person’s purple prose may be another person’s vivid description. Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on who you are), this is largely a judgment call.

However, that is not to say that there aren’t basic ground rules to follow; this isn’t a free-for-all. (Sorry!)

So, here are a few things to keep in mind in order to avoid purpling your prose too much:

Avoid words that are too big and fancy. Obviously, there is merit to being erudite and eloquent. However, there is a difference between using a particular word because of its precise definition and using it because it makes you sound smarter. Be honest with yourself, your own writing style, and pay attention to the task at hand. It’s easy to spot when a student is using difficult words for the sake of using them– trust me, I know. Everyone has a particular writing style that is rather distinctive– much like someone’s speaking voice. So, when a student puts on airs, it’s much like someone you know well suddenly speaking in Muppet-voice. And it’s that much more obvious when unnecessarily difficult words are used where clear, simple wording would suffice.

Keep the urge to write flowery, overly vivid descriptions at bay. Descriptors are used to make the reader visualize what you’re describing. However, there is such thing as written sensory overload. Not sure what I mean? Well, here is an example:

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest held by the English Department of San Jose State University. The contest challenges entrants to write the opening lines of the worst possible novels. Of course, each year’s submissions are hilariously bad renditions of “good fiction.” While they are opening lines to non-existent fiction (how is that for a double negative?), they are also excellent exercises in flowery writing, or purple prose.

This is the 2008 grand-prize winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”

Um, what?

First off, thanks for making New York sounds gross(er). Second, there are way too many descriptions–far more than what’s necessary. This, in all its flowery craziness, is an example of vivid imagery gone awry– this, my dear readers, is purple prose.

Avoid self-indulgent writing. Another clue to whether the writing is overdone is that it draws attention to itself rather than to the story. If you find yourself thinking, “By golly, that’s a lovely phrase”, then you’re in trouble. If the phrase is self-indulgent and is far more about your own cleverness than it is about your topic itself, then it has to go. This is, according to William Faulkner Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch*, is called “murdering your darlings.” In his series of lectures titled On the Art of Writing  from 1916 (!), Sir Quiller-Couch wrote: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Nicely done.

Of course, that is not to say that you have to slaughter or even dump every phrase you are particularly pleased with. You are allowed to marvel at your own genius, yes. So, if there is a phrase in mind that borders on possibly too much, think: if the phrase serves your topic well, it stays but, if it doesn’t, buh-bye. It’s that simple.

 

*William Faulkner is frequently attributed to the phrase “kill your darlings” when, in actuality, it was Sir Quiller-Couch who coined it. The more you know.

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5 Responses to Purple prose: What it is and how to avoid it.

  1. [...] it simple… and short. Purple prose is always a no-no, but this is especially applicable here. Be concise; most cover letters are only [...]

  2. [...] it on my own for so long, so long. I’m so tired. I’m tired and sprawling and turgid and purple and weak. Your writing has abs. It’s thin and its muscles are glistening with oil and [...]

  3. Burl Barer says:

    Famed author Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint, acknowledged that his overwriting was a signature aspect of his stories, and what his public expected and enjoyed, “rather like the fins on a Cadillac”
    “I have never had anything very remarkable to say,” said Leslie Charteris, creator of THE SAINT, “but I can put up the fanciest front in saying it. 1 am the most prolix writer at large-a past master, I hope, of entertaining padding and obfuscation. This is what my public enjoys and pays for, like the extreme styles of a fashion model. When you strip me of it 1 am left shivering and naked with all my brittle bones showing and my skinny fundaments exposed. This is the most modest confession I can make. I am a writer who needs all his feathers and falsies.”

  4. Benny says:

    I’ll never understand the aversion to purple prose.

    “By its sheer verbosity, purple prose can turn off your reader greatly”

    The same can be said of any aesthetic choice. I hate writing told in the presence tense (unless it’s second person). My mother won’t read anything told in first person. I hate writing that’s minimalistic and point blank (“cough*Hemingway*couch*).

    Casting judgement about whether it is good or not is rather ridiculous. I know quite a few readers that love purple prose because it heightens the senses and, you know, actually makes you think (god forbid).

    • Stefanie Arr says:

      Benny,

      Yes, purple prose, in all its purply glory, does have its merits. Here, however, I’m referring mostly to academic writing, where clear, to the point writing serves both reader (meaning, grader) and student best. Sure, embellishment does make one’s work more interesting (and, at times, more palatable), but there is a fine line between flowery description and bombastic grandiosity. Veering towards the latter is where things go awry and points are taken off for what’s considered poor writing– in academia. That being said, I do share your opinion on Hemingway; as Woolf wrote, “his stories are a little dry and sterile.” (An interesting read on Hemingway, I might add: .)

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