Purple Prose: Not A Problem

Purple and yellow asterA few weeks back I learnt the term ‘Purple Prose’. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It’s strictly the domain of writing geeks, and now that you have we welcome you into the fold.

What exactly is purple prose? I find Wikipedia’s and Deb Stover’s explanations lacking (hell, I’m not going to reference something that confuses me), so I’ll just keep things simple.

Purple prose is prose that makes you wince.

There. One simple concept. It’s stilted prose; overcooked prose; writing that tries too hard and reads like a deflated gasbag. Following the excellent rule of showing and not telling:

The magnanimous attractive beauty of this voluptuous red rose in front of me, coupled by the intoxicating smell it emanated, pulled me closer to this divine entity. Its supple body, along with its delicate and tender appearance made me apprehensive towards feeling it. This was the first time I had encountered this monarch of flowers.


I was worried about writing purple prose for a bit. I reread every passage I penned, scribbled in the margins hurried notes and frightened question marks, and then it got so bad I didn’t touch my manuscripts for a week.

It took about that long for me to realize purple prose was not a problem.

In fact, it shouldn’t be a problem: it’s very, very easy to prevent it. While writing, any and all purple prose can be prevented by saying exactly what comes to mind.

Notice I did not say ‘write short’. Also notice I did not say ‘stop using descriptive passages and start taking adverbial shortcuts.’ The rule to prevent purple prose is so bloody easy I had to hit myself on the head for wasting a week:

Say exactly what you mean to say.

If I want to say they had sex, I say they had sex. I don’t go out of my way to say they consummated their relationship with vigorous bonding in between sheets. If there’s a sandstorm in my story I say exactly that, not ‘swirling twirling maelstrom of dust particles’.

This rule is in some ways related to KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly!), but not to the extent where everyone writes in simple, understated Hemingway style. If you want to write beautiful descriptions say things with words you actually use, not words you copy out of a thesaurus.

It became a lot easier for me to write again once I had this in mind. Purple prose is really just a fancy name for something I had recognized long before, but couldn’t place. I was relieved when I realized this. And I could write again.

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Category: Learning To Write