The smell of purple prose


Forsooth, let me this fine day speak of that most virulent of ailments that afflicts many a well-intentioned craftsman of the written word: purple prose. Not just stories can contain purple prose,  but any written text: blog posts, theses, and even simple book reports.

What is purple prose?

If the above intro has not clued you in, purple prose is the use of overly flowery language in your prose. When writing anything of import, be it a story or a thesis, we all want it to look good. So much so, that it is easy to go overboard. Especially if you need to hit a minimum word count, it is easy to use a lot of words to explain a simple concept. I saw this several times in reports written by fellow students at the University – and yes, I used to do it too.

The definition of this is subjective. What one person thinks is overly flowery, another might call excellent. However, with enough adjectives and tag-on sentences, anything will become purple.

Two examples

I’ll give two examples. One with actual prose, and one of a more ‘academic’ flavour. First the prose:

The watery glaring red sun sank ever so slowly toward the dividing line between the aquamarine sheet of  sea and the azure canvas of sky, casting the few wisps of clouds in a thousand violet-red shades and making the crests of the waves on the churning ocean glitter like uncut diamonds beneath a bright light.

Second, an explanation of the Peter Principle:

When selecting people for a promotion to a higher position in an organisation, they should be chosen based on their qualifications related to said position, and not the performance in their current level of employment, lest they be promoted only to a level within the organisation where they no longer perform adequately.

Both of the fragments above sound very pompous, and you may notice that the way they are written distracts from what they are trying to say. That, if anything, is the definition of purple prose.

How to fix it

The solution is quite easy: simplify the text. Purple prose seems to mask that you’re not confident about what you’re saying. It looks like you tried to give the text more weight to make your point. Don’t. Simple texts are usually better at getting your point across. I admit, I’m constantly tempted to use overly long and complex sentences, and I constantly try to fight down that urge. Make it simpler.

In the first example, all I’m describing is a sunset. The simplest form of this is “The sun set over the ocean”, but that may be a bit too simple for use in a story. Let me just strip the extra crud off the example instead:

The sun sank slowly from the azure sky to the  aquamarine sea. It cast the few clouds in shades of red and made the crests of the ocean waves glitter like uncut diamonds.

This looks a lot better. It’s still a huge cliché, but at least it reads more easily. I split the sentence into two smaller sentences, and removed the adjectives, duplications and indirectness from the sentences. The result is more crisp and better, at least, I think so.

We can do the same to the second example:

When selecting people for a promotion, they should be chosen based on their qualifications for their new position, not the performance in their current one. Otherwise, they will be promoted only until they no longer perform.

Again, I’ve split the sentence, and I removed the duplications and convoluted references. You might be able to simplify this further, but then you will start losing some of the nuances of the writing, so I’ll not do that here.


Make your writing simple.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands