Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Ditch Purple Prose for Good in Your Writing


In this article, we will discuss what purple prose is and how to avoid it in your writing. Then, how to ditch it for good!

First, let's talk about what purple prose is, as some of the most experienced writers might not even be familiar with the term. Basically, purple prose is overly complicated descriptions that draw the reader away from the plot, characters, and overall story and draw them directly to a complicated section of writing. Meaning gets lost within purple prose and it can be quite difficult to stay grounded in the story when wading through all that purple. It is not only complicated descriptions, but also run-on sentences, too many words, an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, and so on.

Meaning gets lost within purple prose.
Meaning gets lost within purple prose and it can be quite difficult to stay grounded in the story when wading through all that purple. Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash.

Purple prose is quite simply unnecessary. Passages of purple prose can always be rewritten to be simpler. It doesn't mean that all writing has to be simple, but it is specifically when the writer throws in over-the-top descriptions and a lot of big words mainly for the sake of sounding smarter or more poetic in some way. However, it often has the opposite effect because to randomly throw in words that don't fit the situation is distracting and lacks sense.

This is not to say that all elaborate—or even complicated writing—would be considered purple prose. Some would describe certain writers or authors as using a lot of purple prose, when in fact it may just be that their writing is complex in a way that doesn't appeal to one's personal taste. Purple prose is simply when the writing distracts or adds no meaning to the text with its complications.

Let's look at an example of what purple prose would sound like:

The young adolescent girl of seventh grade age gazed at the red-haired and freckled boy with sparkling emerald eyes. She tossed her walnut-colored hair over her shoulder as she looked upon his gratified pale face, his expression unfathomable.

If you look closely at this passage there is a ton of unnecessary detail that is completely distracting from the meaning of what is actually going on. Young, adolescent, and in seventh grade basically all express the same idea but there is a repetition of three descriptions to name the same thing. There are similarly an abundance of descriptors of hair, eye color, and features that have nothing to do with the plot. When an author describes features they should be spread out some so that we aren't bogged down reading them in one place, where we will likely not even remember each feature, but rather simply be pulled out of the story. Then, to finish off the purple prose in this example are the words such as "gratified" and "unfathomable" when much simpler words would have gone a long way.

Here would be an example of how to revise this section to eliminate the purple prose:

She gazed across the classroom at the red-haired boy, wondering what he was thinking.

It's really that simple to give one or two details that will add and build upon the story as a whole, but not distract the reader. The first example has so many descriptions that are really more "telling" words anyway. Showing vs. Telling is a big factor that writers hear about constantly. You want to show what is happening in the scene whenever possible, and purple prose is really just another way to use "telling" language, even if upon first glance it might look fancy and might be disguised as showing words. The result will be the same.

How can we eliminate purple prose now that we know precisely what to look out for? The easiest answer would be to use simpler wording and descriptions. Of course, no one wants to be overly simplistic in writing though because that can then translate to boring or lack of skills. So, how can one strike that balance? Use of simplicity should be introduced when details are veering off track. If you start describing every minute detail about a dresser that has nothing to do with the story and won't appear again then you have complicated things. Readers will be wondering what the significance of this dresser is, they'll be waiting for its re-emergence, looking for symbolism that won't ever be delivered. So, think, if you are drawing attention to something with overt descriptions, make it have meaning to the story as a whole.

Run-on sentences, adverb use, sentence lengths, unnecessary aesthetic or sensory details are all things to avoid and keep in mind when trying to decipher if your prose might be reaching that purple category.

Run-on sentences, adverb use, sentence lengths, unnecessary aesthetic or sensory details are all things to avoid
Run-on sentences, adverb use, sentence lengths, unnecessary aesthetic or sensory details are all things to avoid and keep in mind when trying to decipher if your prose might be reaching that purple category. Photo by Jorge Rojas on Unsplash.

Purple prose is also not always used throughout an entire book or story. Much of the writing in a book can be quite on track, with use of direct and relevant language, but at times will veer off into overt descriptions and flowery details that don't contribute. This is known as purple patches within the writing. It's obviously better than the entire book being filled with purple prose, but to be the best writers we can, we'd want to eliminate any purple at all and have all language mean something and contribute to the story. Let's now go over six steps to keep you on track with the best writing you can produce and not get distracted by being tempted to use purple prose.

Step One

Know your voice and style. If you are writing true to yourself then you wouldn't use descriptions that you think others might find impressive or be drawn to. You wouldn't think you had to be impressive, you'd let your skills as a writer do the work. Trust your own voice. This is a similar concept to not caring about what others think of you. Of course there are a certain set of rules to being a decent and honest person, just as there are a certain set of rules to producing good writing. So if you are true to yourself and you trust that you are doing what is right and working to the best of your ability then others will automatically be drawn to you (your writing). If you trust your skills and all you have learned about how to write well and effectively, then you will realize when you are using words or descriptions that do not fit within your set of rules.

Step Two

Think about your writing from your reader's perspective. This might seem contradictory to rule #1, but let's break it down to show more what is meant here. Imagine that YOU are the reader. Even if the piece were your own writing, you would notice when it drifts out of the writer's voice—as the reader. As a reader you want to learn relevant details about the characters and you want to see the story progressing as a whole. So, if you aren't sure if one of your passages is purple, first ask whether it is written in your own voice, and then think about if your reader would find the passage interesting and relevant to the overall story.

Step Three

Focus on the overall plot and storyline more than your language and descriptions. It can often be helpful, especially in a first draft, to get the story out fully without worrying about descriptions or language at all. Then, in next drafts, you can go back and revise and add in all those relevant details. Especially in a first draft, if you start in with too many descriptions, they almost always won't make sense or have contributed to the plot later, due to the fact that the story changes with multiple drafts. So, always think: plot and characters first. Details later.

Step Four

Don't call upon a thesaurus unless you are trying to eliminate repetition of words—not to sound smarter! Remember that episode of Friends when Joey used a thesaurus on every single word? That was a great example of purple prose (though possibly a little over-the-top). Let's not tow that line!

Step Five

Edit yourself constantly. Beginning drafts are always lacking, that's a universal known fact. You have also probably thrown an unnecessary amount of purple prose in there, because let's face it, sometimes writers are trying to reach word counts with early drafts. Don't think in terms of how many words you can write, but rather, are they the right words?

Step Six

Keep learning your craft! This may be more of an overall tip to go with the craft ideas we have already discussed, but it is still worth mentioning. If you keep studying the writing rules, and reading writing by great authors, you will adopt these skills as well.

Now that you know what to look out for when it comes to purple prose, and how to keep refining your writing with plot and characters in mind, put these rules in action. Get to writing with simpler and precise language and it will be work that no one will be drawn away from—regardless of content! The most important aspect of a good story is always, first and foremost, the writing.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.