Avoiding Purple Prose: The Importance of Writing Simply

According the the Oxford English Dictionary, purple prose is writing that is "too elaborate or ornate." It is the literary equivalent of a chocolate box painting, and if you are serious about novel writing success you have to avoid it.

Now, this article is not about how to write simply - you will find plenty of advice on how to do that later in this section.

Instead, it is about the importance of avoiding purple prose and writing simply.

As a matter of fact, I cannot emphasize this importance enough.

I have talked in many places here at Novel Writing Help about the "classic mistakes" of beginning writers - getting pacing all wrong, for example, or not having a solid enough understanding of point of view.

But if I had to single out just one thing that fiction beginners get wrong above everything else, it is this: their prose is horribly overwritten...

  • They use too many adjectives and adverbs.
  • They say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence.
  • They describe the setting too much - and way too fancifully.

In short, their prose has a garish tint of purple - and this virtually guarantees that they will have a hard time getting their novel published.

Why Is Purple Prose So Popular?

Trust me - it is very popular indeed with folks just starting out in writing. And I think I know why.

Beginners in creative writing are not stupid people. They are keen readers of fiction, and the mere fact that they want to try writing some fiction of their own is proof in itself that their intelligence is way above average.

But here is the thing: despite their intelligence, and despite all the great books they have read, beginners somehow find it hard to believe that simple and plain prose is acceptable in fiction writing.

Writing like they speak, they believe, is commonplace, something any fool can do. To succeed in literature you have to sound literary, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Believing that good language cannot be simple language is the fastest track there is to writing purple prose.

Don't believe me? Then read Orwell or Hemingway or the stories of Raymond Carver. They all wrote extremely simple prose - and they all did quite well.

For that matter, go into a bookstore and pick a recently published novel off the shelves at random...

  • Yes, there will be passages of more "poetic" prose, particularly where the writer is describing the setting (though the descriptions should still stop well short of being purple prose).
  • But the bulk of the writing should be made up of simple words and simple sentences that don't get in the way of the telling of the story.

Take a look at this opening paragraph of a short story by Ernest Hemingway...

Manuel Garcia climbed the stairs to Don Miguel Retana's office. He set down his suitcase and knocked on the door. There was no answer. Manuel, standing in the hallway, felt there was someone in the room. He felt it through the door.

This kind of writing is the polar opposite of purple prose...

  • The only fancy words here are the character's names.
  • The construction is very simple, too - five short sentences with only the fourth one having a clause attached to it.

And yet Hemingway has managed to create not only a picture in the reader's mind's eye but also a sense of atmosphere and even foreboding. Oh, and the paragraph has a kind of musical rhythm to it, too.

There is a danger here, of course, and that is making those of you whose writing is already good to become too clinical in their style. You don't want to do that.

Some adjectives and adverbs are good, as are some similes and metaphors. Writing words with a touch of poetry about them, particularly during the descriptive passages of writing, is something you should aspire to.

It is just a question of tending towards simplicity.

"Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."
- Samuel Johnson

Another factor which will come into play is your natural writing voice. If Hemingway's stark language leaves you cold, don't write so starkly yourself. Just don't go to the other extreme and write purple prose.

How do you know if your natural writing style is overblown or not? Sorry, but I really can't answer that - it is not something that can be reduced to a formula.

The best advice I can offer is to study those writers you admire and compare your prose with theirs. Try to find a passage in the published novel that you can compare directly with one of yours - a paragraph of setting description, say.

I am not talking about imitating this writer, merely comparing two similar extracts and working out how "fully" or "minimally" you have written yours. And then adjusting as necessary.

If your passage comes across as being a lot more flowery than theirs, you have almost certainly written purple prose.