Avoid Using Purple Prose when Writing
Purple prose is writing that is so ornate that it breaks the flow of the narrative and draws too much attention to itself. Having purple prose in your own writing can make your sentences sound awkward, jumbled, and pretentious to your reader. You can avoid purple prose by adjusting your use of adjectives, adverbs and nouns. You should also simplify your word choice and adjust your sentence structure so your writing is accessible to your reader.
Method 1 of 3:Adjusting Your Use of Adjectives, Adverbs, and Nouns
1. Use adverbs sparingly
Use adverbs sparingly. Adverbs are words that modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They often end in “ly” and tell you when, where, why, or how something happened or is happening. Though adverbs can be useful in writing, they should be used sparingly. Using too many adverbs in one sentence or one passage of text can lead to purple prose.
For example, the sentence, “He moved slowly, at length, and carefully on tip toes through the room with an entirely unnecessary gaze trained on the purple, wooden front door” is purple prose because it is difficult to read and understand. It also contains three adverbs, too many clarifying phrases, and too many adjectives.
A more clear sentence would be, “He moved carefully through the room, training his gaze on the door.” This sentence uses one adverb and very few modifiers and adjectives.
2. Get rid of unnecessary adjectives
Get rid of unnecessary adjectives. Sometimes your sentences start to feel a bit cluttered with adjectives that do not add meaning or depth to what you are trying to say. You should be careful not to try to stuff your sentences with too many adjectives to make them sound richer or more sophisticated. Often, sentences with too many adjectives can end up confusing your reader.
For example, you may have the sentence, “I watched the beautiful, stunning, resplendent sunrise as it crested the battlefield, casting shadows and hues.” There are three adjectives in this sentence that are used to describe the sunrise. But rather than communicate to the reader the beauty of the sunrise, the three adjectives end up cluttering the image of the sunrise.
You can revise the sentence so it does not contain purple prose by picking one adjective. You may write, “I watched the stunning sunrise as it rose over the battlefield.” Sometimes, using just one adjective in a sentence can be more effective.
3. Avoid nominalizations
Avoid nominalizations. Nominalizations occur when you take an adjective, noun, or verb and add a suffix to the end of it, such as “-ity,” “-tion,” or “-ism.” Many academics use nominalizations to discuss complex topics or ideas. But you should avoid using nominalizations in your writing, even if you are writing an academic paper. They are often more confusing than they are useful.
For example, you may use the nominalization “proliferation” (the noun “proliferate” combined with the suffix “-tion”) in a sentence: “The proliferation of thoughts in my mind was causing me to experience brain freeze in the middle of science class.” The use of “proliferation” only serves to confuse the reader and makes the sentence sound pompous. The nominalization does not add meaning or depth to the sentence.
You can rephrase the sentence by removing the nominalization and moving the subject to the front of the sentence, “My mind was crammed with too many thoughts, which is why I had a brain freeze moment in the middle of science class.”
Method 2 of 3:Simplifying Your Language and Word Choice
1. Stay away from obscure language
Stay away from obscure language. Though you should always try to be creative in your writing, you do not want to use language so obscure your reader will end up getting confused and overwhelmed. Try to use language that is accessible and digestible to your reader. You do not want to use a more complex or obscure word in a sentence when a simple, clear one will do just as well.
If you do decide to use obscure language, do so rarely and with intention. Try not to pepper every sentence with an obscure word or phrase that may confuse your reader or make it seem like you are showing off. No one enjoys reading a sentence that seems like it is trying too hard.
For example, you may have the sentence, “It was a howling, torrential night in December, the coldest month of the year, and the wind ripped through the cedar rafters of the house until the walls were ribboned and diced.” Though this sentence is descriptive, it uses language that feels overwrought and cluttered.
You may revise the sentence by adjust the word choice so it is concise and clear. You may write, “It was a stormy night in December and the wind howled through the house.”
2. Use concrete descriptions
Use concrete descriptions. Purple prose tends to crop up when we use descriptions that are abstract and vague. You should create descriptions that are concrete and specific in your writing so you do not fall into abstraction and confuse your reader. Try to attach descriptions to the senses, describing how something or someone smells, tastes, sounds, looks, or feels. This will help to keep your descriptions concrete and avoid purple prose.
For example, you may use the following description in your writing, “She was as swift as a bird and as smart as a whip.” This description uses cliches and comes across as vague and unclear.
You may revise the description so it is more specific and concrete,”She moved fast across the room, smelling of crushed flowers.”
3. Revise phrases you love a little too much
Revise phrases you love a little too much. There is a common phrase in writing: “Kill your darlings.” This phrase suggests that sometimes you have sentences you love so much you do not realize they are full of purple prose. Go through your writing and consider if phrases or sentences that you absolutely love may not be as clear or concise as they could be. You may need to revise these phrases or get rid of them to make your writing stronger.
You should also consider if a phrase you love may be lovely on it’s own but does not fit with the voice of the character. Including phrases that you like for the sake of liking them can be jarring to your reader and make your character’s voice seem less genuine on the page.
4. Write with your audience in mind
Write with your audience in mind. When you are deciding how you are going to phrase an idea or describe a scene, you should always consider who you are writing for. Ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” “What is the reading level of my audience?” “Will my audience understand my sentences?” If the answer these questions is “no”, you may be using purple prose in your writing. You should then consider how you can simplify your word choice so it is more appealing to your audience.
For example, if you are writing a story for young adults, you should avoid using words that will alienate or confuse your audience. You may substitute complex words like “utilize” or “proliferate” with “use” or “grow.”
You may also consider how your teenage characters might express themselves and talk to one another. This can help you use language and word choice that is appropriate for your audience and for the characters in your story.
Method 3 of 3:Adjusting Your Sentence Structure
1. Break up your sentences
Break up your sentences. Purple prose tends to happen the most in sentences that are overly long or rambling. You can avoid purple prose by breaking up your sentences into digestible chunks. Doing this can help you write sentences that are clear and easy to read, without sacrificing any meaning or depth in your writing.
For example, you may have the long, rambling sentence, “I wondered to myself how I was going to escape my predicament as I had royally screwed up once before in Mr. Medina’s class and he wasn’t the most lenient teacher at school so I realized I was to be in store for a several rounds of dull, boring detention and this meant I was going to miss Rory’s annual party so Rory will surely hate me for it.”
You can break up this sentence into a series of short, concise sentences. Breaking up the sentence can also help you recognize when the sentence starts to become confusing or not as strong as it could be.
The revised sentence would be, “I pondered how I was going to get out of this one. I had royally screwed up once before in Mr. Medina’s class. I figured I would earn a few rounds of detention for my screw up, which meant I would be a no show at Rory’s party. Rory will surely hate me for missing it.”
2. Keep your sentences active
Keep your sentences active. Using the active voice in your sentences, as opposed to the passive voice, can help you avoid purple prose. Purple prose often appears in sentences that are in the passive voice, partly because we tend to lean on unnecessary words and phrases in the passive voice. Keep your sentences active, with lots of active nouns, and avoid the passive voice.
For example, you may have the sentence: “The steering wheel spun dramatically out of my hands and continued spinning until I could no longer see clearly out of the windshield into the pitch dark night.” This sentence is confusing because it is in the passive voice and it uses adverbs that pile on top of one another, rather than add meaning or depth to the sentence.
You can rephrase the sentence in the active voice to make it easier to understand and digest, “I lost my grip on the steering wheel in the pitch dark night. The car spun around and around until I could no longer see out the windshield.”
3. Read your sentences out loud
Read your sentences out loud. Get into the habit of reading your sentences out loud to help determine if they are full of purple prose. Listen to how your sentences sound when you read them out loud. Ask yourself, “Does this sentence sound confusing?” “Does it take me more than one full breath to read this sentence out loud?” If the answer to these questions is “yes”, you may need to rephrase or revise the sentence.
Writing for the ear can help you avoid purple prose, no matter the type of writing you are doing. Listen to how each sentence sounds and be willing to cut or adjust any sentences that seem wordy or unclear.