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Good writing celebrates the myriad possibilities of language. From novelists like Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner to essayists like former New York Times columnists William Safire and Frank Rich, many of the best writers exploit the voluminous lexicon of the English language. Sometimes, however, ornamented writing goes too far and detracts from the primary thrust of a piece of writing. Prose that elevates flowery language at the expense of clarity is known as purple prose.
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 Examples of Purple Prose
A long passage that primarily draws attention to its fancy words qualifies as purple prose. To demonstrate this effect, consider these three passages, each a classic example of purple prose:
- The 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
- The 19th century novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: “Although the sight of that magnificent round of beef, and the silver tankard suggestive of real British home-brewed ale and porter, which perennially greet the eyes of the traveller returning from foreign parts who enters the coffee-room of the George, are so invigorating and delightful that a man entering such a comfortable snug homely English inn might well like to stop some days there, yet Dobbin began to talk about a post-chaise instantly, and was no sooner at Southampton than he wished to be on the road to London. Jos, however, would not hear of moving that evening.”
- The satirical Ars Poetica, a deliberately purple essay by the Roman poet Horace: “In pompous introductions, and such as promise a great deal, it generally happens that one or two verses of purple patch-work, that may make a great show, are tagged on; as when the grove and the altar of Diana and the meandering of a current hastening through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine, or the rainbow is described.”
3 Reasons to Avoid Purple Prose
The best writing does not draw attention to itself, but rather serves the story or argument. Here are three reasons to avoid purple prose in your writing:
- Purple prose distracts from your subject. Purple prose lards up a piece of text with unnecessary words that distract from the elements that reading audiences care about. In fiction, those elements are story, character, and worldbuilding. In a persuasive essay, those elements are a central thesis and supporting evidence. Typically these elements are served by succinct language and word choices that propel story and argument forward.
- Great writing eschews overcomplicated words. Just ask United States general and president Ulysses S. Grant (a great memoirist), poet William Carlos Williams, or novelist Ernest Hemingway. These authors used economical language that is sometimes referred to as “beige prose,” the stylistic opposite of purple prose.
- Fancy words are more effective when used sparingly. Does this mean there is no place for fancy words in great writing? Certainly not; one of the most empowering facets of the English language is its burgeoning lexicon, which provides all manner of word choices for English language authors. Sometimes an author will find that the right adjective really is a flowery descriptor worthy of Herman Melville. But it’s equally likely—perhaps even more so—that your writing style will be better served by comparatively simple words.
3 Writing Tips for Avoiding Purple Prose
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Since the early twentieth century, the prevailing norms of English language literature have favored brief description, avoidance of over-the-top wordy fluff, and the prioritization of a good story over gaudy language. As such, avoiding purple prose goes a long way toward making your writing appealing to contemporary audiences. Here are three ways to make your prose more beige than purple:
- Use a thesaurus prudently. There’s nothing more distracting than an author loading up a passage with words they don’t fully understand. If you find yourself frequently enlisting the thesaurus to make yourself sound smarter, be aware that you may be doing the opposite. Limit your writing to words you’ve personally seen used in context. And if you haven’t seen many words properly used in context, you may need to read more.
- Honor your characters’ points of view. Many first time novelists fall prey to purple prose when trying to narrate from an omniscient perspective. Instead of using omniscient narration, consider writing your first book in the first person. That way, you can use your protagonist’s point of view to keep your prose focused.
- Practice short-form writing. As you prepare to write your first novel or a major academic paper, practice the art of succinct writing in other media. For instance, warm up to a novel by writing a short story. Write some brief essays before taking on a long paper. You can even use Twitter to practice succinct prose. After all, a tweet can only be 280 characters—there’s no room there for purple prose.
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