If you’ve ever participated in a creative writing workshop or asked a critique partner to give your latest writing a look, and you received feedback noting that you were writing purple prose, you may have assumed that’s a good thing. Doesn’t “purple prose” just sound all nice and decorative?
Yes, when you think on it, purple prose is decorative—but that’s about all it is, and it’s not a good thing. Purple prose often stands in the way of good writing and channeling your own voice throughout a short story or novel.
The good news? If you have a tendency to use purple prose often throughout your work, you can learn how to eliminate purple patches and avoid them in future works in your writing journey.
Here’s all the writing advice you need to know.
What is purple prose?
Purple prose refers to overly ornate text filled with unnecessarily fancy words, metaphors, long sentences, and flowery language. Often, writers intend for this type of writing to add imagery or they’re attempting to create a vibe; but, more often than not, these word choices end up distracting the reader from the story.
In effective prose, every word serves an important purpose; by contrast, purple passages draw attention to the extravagance of the word choices themselves. While it’s easy to get caught up in your writing and begin spilling out seemingly poetic metaphors all over the page, what may look like good writing to you can actually look, to the reader, like you’re simply trying too hard. You’re just using fancy words instead of getting to the main point.
Purple prose doesn’t typically impact an entire novel or other lengthy work. Instead, most authors struggle with purple patches at occasional intervals throughout a manuscript, drifting into excessive use of descriptions and grand declarations. Often, purple prose can be found used in pompous introductions and weighty openings.
The idea of purple prose is not a new one. In fact, the Roman poet Horace first used the term centuries ago when referring to poetry that basically describes, at great length and in great detail, certain elements that are not crucial to the point of a poem.
What does purple prose look like?
Once you learn how to identify purple prose, you’ll usually be able to spot it instantly. The trick is being able to catch it in your own work.
There are a few things you can look for when trying to determine if a passage or piece of writing is truly “purple” or not:
Excessive imagery that does nothing to support the story
Over-the-top metaphors that seem far-fetched or reaching
Long, run-on sentences that pack in lots of description and otherwise extraneous details
Patches of writing that seem overly dramatic compared to the rest of the text
Dialogue tags that could be swapped out with “said” without changing the meaning of the text
Complicated words used when any other word might do just fine
Writing that takes the reading level beyond that of your intended audience (i.e., writing college-level imagery for a middle grade audience)
You can often find a classic example of purple prose from writers of the past few hundred years; you’ll be hard-pressed to find any Victorian writer who couldn’t resist the allure of some good purple prose. Especially look to Victorian Gothic literature, which relied heavily on purple prose in order to set a mood (think the line made famous by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “it was a dark and stormy night”).
Vintage romance novels are another place that purple prose pops up, with authors often using purple prose to describe love scenes.
Examples of purple prose
To help you get an idea of what purple prose looks like, here are a few examples, with explanations of how each paragraph goes wrong.
Purple prose example #1
The undulating sea of crisp, snowy, pure, and unadulterated clouds—so white that you would never glimpse a gasp or ghost of gray among them, no threat of a menacing, angry rainstorm sent from some hateful god to be seen—stood stark against the blots of azure sky, so blue that it took the sweating, tired and yet somehow cheerily satisfied, despite the heat, picnickers’ minds back to that time that they spent sailing in the Caribbean and how blue the waters were.
First of all, this is a perfect example that displays just how ridiculously long and excessive purple descriptions can be. This is all one single sentence and it clocks in at 83 words. Just try to read that all aloud without losing your breath.
What’s more, this writing includes far too much information about the sky that, unless the rest of the story hinges on weather or our picnicker main characters are meteorologists, is unnecessary.
Purple pose example #2
A woman—not quite short and not quite tall and altogether feminine in her every movement, her every turn of the cheek and brush of the brow—stood on the stoop facing the door and gazing at it as if it were her ever-saving grace and the very thing keeping her from perdition. Her jacket, cinched tight at the waist, was Chanel—I knew because I had the very same one in my last year of college and lost it on the train back home when I was traveling for Christmas between terms—and so was her perfume. She looked over at me and lowered her voice until it was just the softest breath of words: “Do you have a cigarette?”
Again, we have an example of purple prose that includes a passage with far too many unnecessary details. This passage spreads its poetic imagery over a few sentences, which is good, but we still have a lot of words packed into a limited space.
Additionally, we have some metaphors that are frankly over the top, and we have some one-offs from the narrator that aren’t necessary.
How to eliminate purple prose in existing text
Now that you know what writing purple prose looks like, you can use your editing scalpel and begin slicing away at your latest novel draft. Not sure what in your latest work might be considered purple?
This is an instance where getting some tips from your critique partner or beta reader can be incredibly useful, as they can give your work an objective look and make recommendations. You might also try reading your work aloud, which is an excellent editing practice that often makes issues in flow, pacing, and prose more apparent, catching things that a spell checker or word processor just can’t.
As you line edit (aka, editing on a granular level, looking at each line of your work and analyzing whether each word and piece of punctuation works), take care to consider whether you need all of the descriptions, metaphors, etc., that you’ve included, or if it would serve the story better to cut things down.
Revising our first example
So how might we better write this passage from above? A good place to start is by eliminating some of the excessive descriptors, as well as details that simply don’t matter and shortening the passage.
The sea of snowy clouds stood stark against an azure sky. The color reminded the exhausted, satisfied picnickers of their days on the Caribbean.
83 words are reduced to 24 and the singular sentence is split into two. As you can see, we’ve still kept the main idea of the passage and you get all the details, but without any of the fluff. You don’t need to know that there’s no gray in the clouds, because describing them an “snowy sea” indicates that there’s no gray.
Revising the second example
A woman of medium height stood on the stoop, staring at the door. She wore a cinched Chanel jacket and perfume. She looked at me and whispered, “Do you have a cigarette?”
Again, editing this passage allows you to shorten it significantly. Removing all of the extraneous details and words, and using more succinct, concrete descriptions, allows you to get right to the point. Her designer clothes and perfume suggest she’s feminine without the need to state it overtly. We’ve also removed the one-off aside about the narrator’s lost coat, which isn’t relevant to the scene, and we used a much simpler dialogue tag of “whispered” rather than going over the top with “and lowered her voice until it was just the softest breath of words.”
How to avoid purple prose in your writing
For future works, what should you keep in mind as you write to save yourself a little editing time?
Well, as you write, ask yourself…
Is this description important?
Yes, you do need to write about and describe your setting. You need to convey information about your characters’ surroundings, appearances, etc. However, does your reader really need to know what the sky looks like every time a character steps out the door, and furthermore, what the sky reminds the character of, and furthermore, what they were wearing in that memory? Probably not.
Likewise, do you need to spell out exactly how a one-off observation—say the falling of a hair or the scent of a laundry detergent—makes your main character feel, dredging up some emotional reaction to every single thing around them? Not likely.
To avoid purple prose, focus on information that moves the story forward.
Do these word choices detract from the main point?
Decorative purple prose can actually detract from your story’s key message, distracting your reader in such a way that you’re lessening the impact of your work.
For each word choice, each sentence, each description you write, ask whether it helps or hurts your work’s plot and theme. Remember to avoid colorful dialogue tags that distract from the actual dialogue.
Is purple prose always a bad thing?
While most writers and readers by and large agree that purple prose is a distraction and not indicative of good writing, some disagree. There are some readers who will defend purple prose and, in fact, enjoy it. The role word choices play and the degree to which one can luxuriate in them is a very personal choice.
The key to mastering poetic prose is to approach it just as you would any standard, widely accepted writing rule. Learn why the rule exists and how to follow it before you break it. Know how to handle this double-edged sword before you take a swing.
Then, once you have a handle on when, how, and how often to write purple prose, you can then use it as a tool for dramatic or comedic effect, or in certain genres where it might be more acceptable or expected.
Other colors of prose
There are other types of problematic prose beyond purple prose, like beige prose.
The definition of beige prose is pretty much the exact opposite of purple prose. It refers to prose that includes just the need-to-know (or less) facts and nothing else. Think writing reduced down to its most basic elements.
Here’s a beige passage:
She walked into the room and pulled off her sweater before sitting. She smiled and took the offered cup of tea. “This is nice,” she said.
She said, “We should do this more.”
He nodded. He finished his tea in silence and then left.
There are times and places where this works, such as if you’re trying to create a sense of urgency or action.
However, if you’re consistently using beige writing, it could mean that your writing lacks creativity and inspiration, and that you’re just describing characters going through the motions. There’s no emotion or depth.
Even if you’re using objective point of view, that doesn’t mean you’re restricted to this type of impersonal prose. While an objective point of view narrator only observes the story as it happens, without any knowledge of characters’ thoughts, feelings, or motives unless they’re directly stated, a well-written objective narrator will use the right words to still create an immersive, rich world for the reader.
There’s also blue prose, which isn’t nearly as common as purple prose. Blue prose refers to prose that’s overtly and unnecessarily sexual, for no real reason pertaining to the story.
Ensure your story fulfills its purpose
If you’re using an abundance of purple prose, your story likely feel unbalanced in some way. Maybe the pacing will feel off. Maybe it will be difficult for your reader to follow the plot around all the description. Or maybe your story’s point or theme will just be entirely lost.
Whatever the case, purple prose is just one of the many forms of writing that should be approached with caution and care, especially by new writers.