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Dear Editor: What is Purple Prose & How Can I Fix It?

—Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly— In her latest column, veteran editor and BookWorks founder, Betty Kelly Sargent, helps a reader understand that when it comes to purple prose, less is definitely more… Dear Editor: I was recently accused of writing “purple prose”. What is it and what can I do about it? —Beth Overwriting &… [Read More]

How to avoid purple prose by Betty Kelly Sargent for Bookworks.com

—Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly

In her latest column, veteran editor and BookWorks founder, Betty Kelly Sargent, helps a reader understand that when it comes to purple prose, less is definitely more...How to avoid purple prose by Betty Kelly Sargent for Bookworks.com

Dear Editor:

I was recently accused of writing "purple prose". What is it and what can I do about it?

—Beth

Overwriting & Purple Prose Are Nothing New

According to Wikipedia, “purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself....It is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors.”

How to avoid purple prose by Betty Kelly Sargent for Bookworks.comThis style has been a problem for writers for more than 2,000 years. In about 19 BCE, the Roman poet Horace wrote a letter discussing the art of writing. It was called Ars Poetica and contained more than 30 writing suggestions including a warning to stay away from “flashy purple patches.”

The problem with purple prose is it gets in the way of what you are trying to say. It interrupts the flow of your story and shouts, “Look at me; see all the fancy words I can use.” Obviously, this is not good.

Eliminate the Unnecessary

What you need to do is learn to spot it, analyze it, and rephrase it. Try to simplify, clarify, and keep your story moving. William Strunk, co-author of The Elements of Style, puts it this way: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”How to avoid purple prose by Betty Kelly Sargent for Bookworks.com

If you concentrate on making every word tell, you’ll never again be accused of writing purple prose.


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5 thoughts on “Dear Editor: What is Purple Prose & How Can I Fix It?”

  1. One of my professors in college once commented my writing was turgid and bombastic…guess he was talking about purple prose! Luckily, that was freshman year and my writing has come a long way since then.

    1. Haha, that is how most of us started out, Barbara. But how tempting it is to indulge in “purple prose” when there are so many wonderful adjectives like “turgid” and “bombastic” 😉

  2. I can write non-fiction books but just wrote my first novel even tho it’s historical and based on facts. I am a journalist by education and trade so had a hard time elaborating. So, maybe it’s a good thing after reading about purple prose.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Beverly. Keeping what you write clear, simple, well thought out and honest is a plus whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Good luck with your novel.

  3. D Witz says:

    I remember years ago when I actually watched Oprah Winfrey, she had a book club and would read from her favorites and consistently put me into a coma. It seemed like she never read anything that was clear and to the point. I can’t abide verbal curlicues. I have a hard time taking in information from print material and don’t need the extra laps to get to the destination.

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