So, Your Prose Is A Little Purple?

writing tips

Every once in awhile a reviewer, a reader, an agent, a random great aunt will tell you that your beautiful and amazing story is purple prose.

Most of the time they are wrong.

A lot of the time, your prose is just lyrical and some people don’t know what to do with that.

What Even Is Purple Prose?

First off, lyrical prose is NOT the same as purple prose, which is defined by Wikipedia (I know! I know! Not a good source) as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.

The key there is ‘excessive.’

And excessive? That’s a subjective word. But a good way to think about it is that lyrical writing is done with a light hand, not a heavy one. It mixes regular sentences and dialogue with moments that sing off the page. 

Not every line should be a metaphor. Not every line should be a description. 

How Do You Deal When It’s TOO Lyrical?

A good way to deal with that is to have that lyrical moment and then follow it up with two moments that are not so lyrical. 

In Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi she does this well. 

“His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber. Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Sandhya Menon

So she has the balance between lyrical moments of transcendent words and time with the more concise, forward-moving sentence. 

You want your descriptions that are lyrical to keep us in the story and to also transcend the story. You want them to be vivid but also somewhat concise. To avoid overuse you want to make sure that the description is accomplishing something such as giving us insight in our character or making the atmosphere/tone seem amazing. 

The problem is that sometimes elevated craft brings out naysayers, especially anti-intellectual naysayers and they call it purple prose. 


A Reedsy blog has an example of purple prose as this: 

The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission…

Reedsy example of purple-ness

According to Reedsy (and a million other places), you want to stay away from purple prose because: 

  • 1. The writing draws attention to itself and away from the narrative or thesis.
  • 2. It’s too convoluted to read smoothly and can disrupt the pacing of your story.

The Reedsy blog goes on to say: 

“So why, despite its many drawbacks, do some writers continue to use such unnecessarily ornate language? The answer, ironically, is simple: to try and appear more “literary.”

“Think of purple prose as a cardboard cutout of a celebrity. From a distance it looks convincing, even impressive — but as you draw closer, you realize there’s nothing behind it. Purple prose is like that: beautiful from afar, with very little substance to it.”

Reedsy again.

And more importantly, that same damn Reedsy blog says this about what purple prose isn’t: 

“To clarify, the term “purple prose” doesn’t just automatically apply to any kind of dense or elaborate language. This is a common misconception, perpetuated by diehard fans of minimalism and Ernest Hemingway. Purple prose specifically refers to overblown description that fails to add to the text, or may even detract from it.”

“Purple prose” is often used as an insult for highly lyrical or complex language that some readers dislike. But don’t be fooled — actual purple prose lacks the elegance and cohesion of these examples, and distracts from the text rather than enhancing it.”

Still Reedsy

Sean Penn’s novel is a good example of purple prose. No offense to him: 

“There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations. This came to him via the crucible-forged fact that all humans are themselves animal, and that rifle-ready human hunters of alternately-species prey should best beware the raging ricochet that soon will come their way.”

Sean Penn

So, how do you avoid PURPLE PROSE?

Write in your own voice if you’re worried about it. 

Also? If you’re worried about it, focus a bit more on your plot. 

Do This: 

Imagine you’re the reader. Would you get what’s going on right there in those words (the potentially purple words) if you were just reading this? Are those words the easiest path to understanding and to be submersed in the story? After they’ve read it are they going to put it down and say, “Why did the author spend forty-five pages talking about her underwear? Does it have anything to do with anything?” 


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Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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