What is purple prose and why should you avoid it?

When I was in university, a friend and I had just gotten our Shakespeare essays back and she was pissed. Our professor (who was kind of a jerk, but that’s not really important right now) had basically summed up the entirety of his feedback in one word.

“He called my writing superfluous!” she shouted, waving the paper around furiously. “Can you believe that? Superfluous!”

I had no idea what the word meant, but it totally sounded like something he would say.

It sounds like something out of Mary Poppins, but what superfluous actually means is this:

Unnecessary, especially through being more than enough.

What our professor was trying to tell her was that she had said a lot without actually saying very much at all: her essay was full of purple prose.

Purple prose, flowery language – these are just a couple of pretty ways to describe writing that is overly elaborate and ornate. You’ve likely read purple prose before. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re guilty of writing it.

I was terrible for purple prose when I started writing. (Hell, I’m still guilty of it sometimes.) I was always trying to create something epic and poetic; something so beautiful and moving that reviewers would rave, teachers would assign my books, and my work would be deemed instant classics. Unfortunately, I was not hitting the mark.

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What’s the difference between elegant prose and flowery language?

There’s a big difference between elegant prose and flowery language, and sometimes — especially when you’re fairly new to writing — it can be hard to tell the difference. I used to get so angry when a teacher or T.A. would call me out for it. I’d argue that it was just my style, and if I got rid of my fancy wordplay then it would be completely unremarkable.

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Beautiful, poetic language is a joy to read. You know when you’re reading it; you know it’s good even if you can’t explain why.

Purple prose doesn’t feel that way. Unnecessarily complicated writing can be challenging to read because of the way it meanders. It’s trying too hard to be poetic and literary, but instead just comes across as kind of, well, pretentious.

Fancy, often unnecessarily big words will be littered throughout the sentences that are twice as long as they need to be. By the time you finish a paragraph, you might find yourself wondering what you just read. That’s purple prose.

Purple Prose

6 tips for avoiding/fixing purple prose

  1. Keep it simple: Purple prose is wordy. It’s needlessly complicated and long-winded. Don’t add words and sentences just for the sake of it.
  2. Make every sentence count: Whether it’s a novel or a blog post, everything you write should serve a purpose and move the narrative forward.
  3. Choose your words carefully: A thesaurus is a great tool, but not all synonyms are equal. Choose words because they fit what you’re writing, not because they sound cool.
  4. Remember your audience: When you write, you’re trying to say something to someone. Will that someone be able to follow your message? Are you speaking their language?
  5. Listen to your editors: Editors, beta readers, proofreaders, friends – no matter who your second set of eyes is, when they point out convoluted sections of your work, your job is to listen. It’s common to get defensive, but remember: these people want your writing to be as good as it can be. You don’t have to take every note, but you should always pay attention.
  6. Kill your darlings: Revision is a crucial part of writing. This phase isn’t the time to be precious about our work. When you find rambling and meandering sentences and paragraphs, revise ruthlessly.

What are your tricks for avoiding purple prose? Tell me all about it in the comments!

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. rowanhayes says:

    I am very, very guilty of this. In my head it sounds so wonderful and poetic. Then I go back to it a few months later and go. “….Oh….”

    1. Sara Harms says:

      It’s amazing/scary what we find when we proof read our work…

  2. Informative well-articulated piece. Thanks

    1. Sara Harms says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful Tebatjo!

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