Why we suck at writing, volume 1: Purple prose. 

Sometimes, fancy words are rudely forced to sit next to one another, crammed into a crowded sentence by an inexperienced writer desperate to prove himself. This writer lives in all of us, and he makes our writing suck.

Purple prose (AKA flowery language or flowery writing) occurs when complicated words are used to make a passage appear more attractive. Elaborate writing was the norm for centuries until authors like Hemmingway arrived on the scene, armed with concise prose that put a stop to such nonsense.

A classic example of purple prose was written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The line is unnecessarily complex and melodramatic. It also lacks focus—it rambles along, jumping from rain to wind to lamps, and the night is stormy except when it isn’t. I also really wish he’d written ‘London streets’ instead of “streets (for it is in London that our scene lies).”

A more contemporary example of purple prose can be found in Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff:

“Hence, his life remains incessantly infused with her identity-infidelity, and her abhorrent ascensions to those constant salacious sessions of sexual solitaire she’d seen as self-regard.” – Page 11

If purple prose is a literary sin, then why do we do it?

One reason is because we wish to appear intellectual and/or skilled at writing. One day, an author in one of the writing groups I’m in presented the first page of his book for critique. After swimming through a sea of adjectives and adverbs, I suggested he cut down on the flowery writing. I received this response: ‘I appreciate your taking your time to attempt to assist me. That is what defines your innermost goal which pushes from your unconsciousness in an attempt to outshine the other emotions which began the journey of that moment…’ and so on. At first, I assumed he was trolling me, but his other posts and excerpts were written in similar fashion. I can’t be sure what he was trying to achieve by writing that, but I know he failed.

Another reason is to make our scenes appear more dramatic. There’s a certain appeal to flexing our literary muscles with ornate language instead of using simple, ordinary speech. I recently read an excerpt where it described the way a character’s footsteps ‘echoed off the pavement like a heartbeat that beat within the fabric of the universe.’ At first glance, that may appear elegant and clever, but such flowery writing obscures the meaning and draws attention away from the story and aims it at the words instead. This crime is one I committed in early drafts of my first novel, Seahaven, when I included lengthy descriptions of the underwater world. Chopping those paragraphs was painful but the book was greatly improved by it.

So how do we avoid sucky, flowery writing?

It’s easy. Whip out your literary scalpel and chop away unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. These words are often redundant, or don’t add enough meaning to the sentence to justify using them. Next, seek out complex words like ‘converse’ and ‘utilize,’ and replace them with simple ones such as ‘talk’ and ‘use.’ Finally, cut away fanciful metaphors and descriptions. Do this until you’re left with a concise story that readers will easily understand.