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January 23, 2018
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at the problems with purple prose.

Dear Editor:

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

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.”

This 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.

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, coauthor 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.”

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

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.