Is your prose too “purple”?


One of my worst habits as a writer is a tendency to write “purple prose.” According to Wikipedia, purple prose is:

[…]text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, zombie nouns, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.

Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author’s text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. Though there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose, deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a subjective decision. According to Paul West’s words, “. . .a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that’s rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is [widely seen as] immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.”

In everyday English, this means purple prose is over the top writing that puts your readers to sleep, makes them want to gag, or makes them want to murder you in your sleep. It also comes off as pompous and pedantic, like someone trying to act smarter than they really are. The same thing can be said in simpler direct language instead of a shitstorm of unnecessary adjectives, overdone descriptions, verbs-turned-into-nouns, and passive voice (“…is characterized by…” is an example of passive voice).

Purple prose was much more common in the early 20th century and before, and maybe in those days of yore people had more patience and time to actually sit and decipher sentences with multiple clauses and descriptors. But if you’re writing for the average person in the early 21st century, you’d better keep it simple if you don’t want to bore your readers to death.

The Writer’s Diet has a neat test that lets you know if your prose is too overdone. All you do is plug in a sample of your writing, press “analyze,” and ta-da! You get a critique and graph!

Here’s a screenshot of mine.  I used the last article I posted.  I need to work on my use of verbs (the brown line at the top: “Flabby”)  but everything else looks okay (Lean and Trim), at least for that article.