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Writing

What Is Beige Prose? How to Use Beige Prose in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 10, 2020 • 5 min read

Whatever you’re writing—be it a historical fiction short story or a science fiction novel—you’re going to need to write a description. What do your main characters look like? Where do they live? What do they do for work? Answering questions like these may seem like a straightforward task, but writing description can actually be a delicate balancing act between two ends of a spectrum: beige prose and purple prose. The former emphasizes succinct, clear language, the latter skews more florid.

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What Is Beige Prose?

Beige prose is a writing style that favors brevity and simplicity. Writers of beige prose use:

  • Plain words: Beige prose calls for common words that will be easily understood by readers, and it often favors shorter words over longer ones.
  • Simple structure: The structure of beige sentences is most often simple—meaning that the sentences follow simple “subject, verb, object” construction without any additional clauses included with commas.
  • Minimal description: Beige prose favors straightforward and brief description rather than extensive metaphors, qualifiers, or long lists of adjectives or adverbs.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Beige Prose?

Beige prose is a tool that allows writers to draw readers’ attention to the right things, helping them zero in on the important part of a passage rather than bogging them down in excessive description and unnecessary words. However, if a writer overuses beige prose, the writing can come across as terse or brusque, and readers can quickly get bored.

An Example of Beige Prose From Literature

Though Ernest Hemingway is often cited for his beige prose, Mark Twain was also a master of using language efficiently. Consider this passage from his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

We went tiptoeing along a path amongst the trees back toward the end of the widow's garden, stooping down so as the branches wouldn't scrape our heads. When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still.

Most of this paragraph is written in simple sentence structure, with few adjectives and adverbs. Twain could have described the house or more about the path, but he chose to keep the structure simple to clearly convey the action happening, which is more crucial to the story.

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When to Use Beige Prose

Beige prose can be a useful tool in plenty of writing situations:

  • During action sequences: Short sentences and minimal description will focus readers’ attention on the action and avoid slowing down the pace.
  • For setting: It’s easy to go overboard when describing a setting—but beige prose is a great way to keep your descriptions from becoming overwhelming. If you say “The cabin room was sparse except for the looming stuffed grizzly in the corner,” readers can fill in the details for themselves without you needing to describe the floorboards, the window, the bedsheets, and what your character had for dinner last week.
  • For character descriptions: Character descriptions benefit from beige prose much the same way as setting descriptions—if you choose one or two interesting details to mention, then readers will fill in the rest and remember each character better than if you had an entire paragraph describing each one.

When to Avoid Using Beige Prose

Relying too much on beige prose can make your writing feel drab and unfeeling. Here are a few times when you should think about amping up the description:

  • When you want to inspire emotion: Beige prose often comes across as a series of terse statements, and that will work against you if you’re trying to inspire a specific emotion in readers. During particularly poignant scenes, feel free to add in some strong description to describe how your characters are feeling.
  • When writing dialogue: While beige prose can sound like the way certain people talk in real life, it’s definitely not true for everyone. If you have a specific character who you want to be a chit-chatter, don’t write them using only terse replies just for the sake of beige—it will sacrifice their character development.

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What Is Purple Prose?

Purple prose is a pejorative term that describes prose writing that overemphasizes showy descriptive language. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, purple prose is “prose that is too elaborate or ornate.” If you find that a passage in your own writing only draws attention to your prodigious vocabulary, or that it exists primarily to boost word count, you may be guilty of using purple prose—or at the very least “purple patches” of prose.

3 Differences Between Beige Prose and Purple Prose

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Purple prose is the opposite of beige prose, but it is more than just description—purple prose is writing that goes over the top. The differences between beige prose and purple prose are in:

  1. Word choice: While beige prose opts for plain and common words, purple prose sounds as if the writer looked up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus to sound impressive. It is often described as flowery language and goes overboard with figures of speech.
  2. Sentence structure: While beige prose uses simple sentences as much as possible, it’s rare to find a simple sentence in purple prose—purple prose is all about piling on clause after clause of description with no variation.
  3. Word count: While beige prose avoids unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, purple prose uses as many as possible, often describing things that are obvious or that aren’t important to the plot.

An Example of Beige Prose vs. Purple Prose

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While beige prose can be a tool writers use for a particular effect, purple prose declined in popularity in the twentieth century and is now rarely thought of as a sign of good writing—it should be avoided. The below example illustrates why.

First, consider this example of purple prose:

He took up the instrument of cleaning in his left hand, grasping the handle in his fist and moving the brush end in laggard, slothful fashion across his ivory mounds of mastication. In the reflected image of the looking glass, he observed his fatigued visage, the corrugations and depressions in his epidermal layer communicating the information: He was far-removed from the days of juvenescence.

See how it substitutes common words for thesaurus versions and short ideas for long ones, almost as if it’s deliberately trying to reach an inflated word count? That’s what purple prose is all about—sacrificing clarity for an over-the-top language that feels like it’s trying too hard to impress.

Now take a look at this version of the same example. It’s beige, but it still features some effective description:

He brushed his teeth, watching his tired, wrinkled face in the mirror. He was getting old.

In this version, readers can clearly understand what’s going on, and the few, focused descriptive words (“tired,” “wrinkled”) help them get the tone of the action without going overboard.

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