How to Eliminate Purple Prose from Your Writing

How to Eliminate Purple Prose from Your Writing
November 15, 2016 5 Comments Writing Advice J.K. Allen

how-to-eliminateYou bought a new book at the bookstore and go home eagerly to read it. Maybe your friends have recommended it to you, maybe the cover just caught your eyes. Either way you sit down and crack open the first page only to be barraged with an outrageous number of adjectives, painful similes, and an endless number of descriptions. What happened? Purple prose happened. So what is purple prose? It’s writing that is too flowery or overdone and doesn’t advance the story. So how do we cut purple prose from our writing? Let’s take a look.

  • Does your writing have multiple adjectives and or convoluted metaphors and/or similes? Cut multiple adjectives and replace them with stronger verbs and concrete nouns.
  • Does it describe things of significance instead of little details that don’t matter to the plot? Don’t describe everything in the room, only things that will come into play later. Think Checkov’s gun and foreshadowing.
  • Is it written simple and clear? Using one word to describe something is better than using two. And don’t abuse your thesaurus or send your readers running for their dictionaries. Your writing should be understandable. Use complex words to be precise about language, not to be pedantic.
  • Did you kill your darlings? Even if you are in love with a sentence or descriptions, you have to cut it if it’s calling too much attention to itself. If it’s extraneous and overdone, it has to go. All writing must have a point beyond word count or sounding pretty.

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Now let’s look at an example of purple prose:

Sara sat outside of her quaint, local café which overlooked the charming, quiet, and serene park. The riotous trees donned coats of fiery red, blazoned orange, and lemon yellow leaves and the still verdant grass was littered with desiccated leaves strewn across the green. As for the playground equipment, it had seen better days with electric blue paint cracked and peeling and showing signs of burnt-umber rust, like an old car left out in the rain. She took a sip of her heady and fragrant drink and smiled.

Look at the overuse of adjectives and the tired simile. Also, if the park holds no importance to the story, it’s been described way too much. Now let’s look at that passage without the purple prose:

Sara sat outside the quaint café that overlooked the local park. The trees were a riot of color, donning coats of red, orange, and bright yellow. The leaves littered the remaining grass and the blue playground equipment showed signs of rust. She took a sip of her mocha and smiled, reveling in its heady scent.

We cut a lot of the adjectives, focusing on what descriptions we used. We also used the concrete noun of a mocha instead of the vague drink we had used before. Do you struggle with purple prose in your writing? What tips and tricks do you have to deal with it? Share below and happy writing.

Julia

Check out my blog and Twitter for more writing tips and inspiration and find me on Facebook for weekly prompts.

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J.K. Allen Julia Allen received her BA in Creative Writing and English from Michigan State University. She did her senior thesis in poetry under the tutelage of Diane Wakoski, but has been focused primarily on fiction as of late. Common writing themes that can be found in her work address identity and the type of strength that can be found in ordinary people. Julia is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel and can be found at local cafes in her hometown when writing, and painting, drawing, or reading when not.
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  1. 5 Comments

    Lucie Guerre

    I enjoyed this article, but I disagree with some of its sentiments. I think there is a time and a place for multiple adjectives and describing the scene. Sometimes, setting can be own character or how a character visualizes a place tells us a lot about their feelings about said place.

    However, ultimately, I found this post useful and a good checklist because I know, at times, I am guilty of purple prose.

    Reply
    1. 5 Comments

      Rianne

      I agree with you Lucie. But there are novels I have read that have so much description that it is really sad that behind all the adjectives is a really great story.\

      Reply
  2. 5 Comments

    J.K. Allen

    These rules are not about absolutism and if the description advances the story, as in portraying mood, etc., then the description is working. Like I say in the last point, all writing must have a point beyond sounding pretty. But I agree there are times when description is needed and it adds to the story beautifully. Thanks so much for your comments and thanks for reading!

    Reply
  3. 5 Comments

    A.M. Rycroft

    I feel like the advice here is good, but a little vague. “Does your writing use multiple adjectives […]?” Technically, everyone’s does, unless you eliminated all adjectives in the entire piece.

    It would be more accurate to ask if the writer’s story contains an overabundance of adjectives that don’t improve the setting of the scene. When world building in fantasy in particular, many readers get cranky if a setting isn’t described well enough. In that instance, you can’t just say use stronger nouns and verbs. However, an overabundance of description, fueled mostly by adjectives and simile only weighs down the scene and bogs down the reader.

    Here’s how I would say it: Look at your writing. What description can be eliminated without adversely affecting the scene? Go from there.

    Reply
    1. 5 Comments

      J.K. Allen

      These were not meant as absolutes in and of themselves. You have a great outlook on it. Like you say there are necessary descriptions such as ones that detail setting or set the mood for a scene. Purple prose does neither. It serves no purpose other then being pretty and should, therefore, be cut. Everything should serve the story. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment

      Reply

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