Purple Prose By Any Other Name

Posted by: Jan Morrill


I love finding a new word–a unique word that I can roll over my tongue, maybe even blog about. Like this one:


\PLEE-uh-naz-uhm\, noun;

1) The use of more words than are necessary to express an idea.
2) A superfluous word or expression

Synonyms: copiousness, garrulity, loquaciousness, verbosity

Isn’t that a perfect word for a writer? So much nicer sounding than purple prose. Though I’ve wilted at accusations of purple prose, I can almost say I wouldn’t mind being accused of purple pleonasm.

What is purple prose, or its more sophisticated cousin, purple pleonasm? Wikipedia defines it as:

… a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

There was a time when I thought this was precisely how a gifted writer should write. In fact, allow me to make a true confession. Here’s an excerpt of a story I wrote several years ago:

Photo by Mugly

The rising sun bade goodbye to the night’s moonglow with a kiss of violet, pink, orange and finally golden yellow.  Earth accepted Sun’s kiss and blushed with color.
Here is the critique given to me by a prominent college professor/editor, whose name I will change to protect her innocence:

PROFESSOR HEMINGWAY:  “Oh. . . my . . . God.”

JAN: (Smiling and thinking to herself) I knew she’d love it.

PROFESSOR HEMINGWAY: (Pulling her hair out)  “No. No. No!! This is SO purple. I hate purple prose!”

Perhaps this is the slightest of exaggerations. But as you might imagine, I went pale and queasy all at once as I watched her tear my pages to pieces before she laughed maniacally and tossed them in the air. They drifted, down, down, down like giant snowflakes on a day that for me, had become as cold as the words she’d cast upon me, as misty as my eyes.
I digress. . .

Photo by Piotrus

Some lessons are best learned the hard way. I think. . . I hope . . . my writing has come a long way. At least now when I read that passage, I feel the same kind of roiling in my stomach one with a tummy full of cotton candy might feel after one too many turns on a favorite swirling, twirling carnival ride. 

Photo by Andrew Dunn

Still, I do kind of like passages of pleonasm. Though Wikipedia calls a phrase that “draws attention to itself” purple prose, I must admit, sometimes I like to be pulled out for a moment, to float in the art of how the words were put together. To me, it is akin to walking through a museum and finding one piece in particular that draws me to admire and wonder.

When I write my first draft, I let purple prose flow through my fingers to keyboard to my heart’s content. It’s the dancing, skipping, doing cartwheels of my writing. (See my propensity for purple?) But, as I described in my blog entry “Synonyms for Hate,” when I begin my editing process, I pull it from my manuscript like crabgrass from my garden–though a bit more begrudgingly, I must admit.

I like salt, too. Just a sprinkle. But too much, and the meal is ruined. It’s the same with purple prose. A little here and there adds an artistic touch. Too much, and the author might as well spill a gallon of paint over the story.

A purple prose is a purple prose . . . by any other name–even if you, like me, prefer to call it pleonasm. And it’s subjective. Every reader has a different tolerance level. My advice to myself is to use it sparingly. I’d much rather leave my reader hungry for more than feeling stuffed and bloated.

How about you? Do you use purple prose? Do you like to read it?

A few great links:





Battling Your Evil Editor

This week’s question is by Linda Apple:

Do you have that Evil Editor perched on your shoulder like a buzzard squawking at every word? How do you overcome trying to make the first draft perfect and just get the story written?

PAMELA:  When I sit at the computer there’s nothing but the character and me. I never second guess myself when I’m writing.  It’s only words.  If I don’t like what I’ve written the next day, so what?  That’s why they make that delete button.

However, I begin each day’s writing by going back over what I wrote the day before.  That gets me back into the character and it’s the first time I edit. That’s when I hear the voices of the Northwest Arkansas Writer’s Workshop.  The members live in my head and whisper encouragement and suggestions in my ear.

I cut and paste, chop the heads from prairie dogs (the use of the same word in close proximity), add a line or two, delete a paragraph here and there. Then I flip the switch on the voices and get on with the day’s new creation.

Once I walk away from the computer, I agonize over plot, argue with the direction the characters have taken, jot down descriptions or ideas that invade my head, generally make myself crazy second-guessing myself until I sit down to write again. But, once I start to write, that all goes away.  My writing process is like watching an internal movie.  All I do is put the story down on paper.

CLAIRE:   When I sit down to write, I pack a sling shot and a Glock. I have to kill that dastardly buzzard every morning. He perches on my shoulder and squawks every time I misuse a comma and/or split an infinitive. Once I get him silenced, I’m able to write, to get those words on the page. What I find most interesting is that while I’m writing, I can’t get my internal editor to shut up; however, when I’m actually in edit mode, the only thing I can think about is the next story. Seems I have an evil editor and a wicked writer battling in my head all the time.

JAN:  The blasted buzzards are swarming over in my part of the world. I mean, I’ve already re-typed that first sentence three times. The darn buzzards . . . no, wait . . . the dang buzzards . . . nope, erase that . . . the blasted buzzards. Yeah!  . . . are hovering . . . no, wait . . . flying. Damn, what’s that word I’m trying to think of . . .oh! Swarming – that’s it!

Obviously, that Evil Editor is about to devour me and my manuscript right along with me.

But, I recently found comfort in an article by Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. (See my Monday Mashup with a link to the article—oh, all right, I’ll give it to you here, too.) In her article, “My Life’s Sentences,” she states, “The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life.” When I write, every sentence is an art form, a puzzle to be solved, a story.

So, for me, it’s a long, slow process. But I love every bit of the struggle.

RUTH:  When I was a rookie writer I was obsessed with getting the first draft perfect.  Every word that Spell-check underlined had to be fixed on the spot, my new thesaurus took a beating, and I’d be stuck for endless minutes trying to think of a name for a character or town.  I’d sit for hours at the computer, my head pounding, my butt numb and still have only a few paragraphs to show for my effort.  Creativity ran and hid. My writing was forced, flat, and well . . . boring.

That’s when I learned my first huge lesson in writing: trust the voices in my head.  My characters were itching to tell their stories and were interesting and exciting enough on their own without me trying to make them so.  I ignored the misspellings, the repeated words, and put blanks when names and locations didn’t come to right away.  I just wrote.  That’s when the magic happened.   The story flowed.  The second lesson I learned?  Write first, edit second.

Of course when all else fails, I find the most excellent way to banish the Evil Editor is with a tall glass of Dr. Pepper mixed with a shot of Captain Morgan.

LINDA:  From the first day I decided to pick up the proverbial pen and become a writer, a dark shadow loomed in the room and landed on my shoulder like a buzzard. I called this tormenting feeling the “Evil Editor.”


Because this feeling made me question every word I typed. I worried about having that perfect opening sentence. I worried about grammar, sentence structure, using a word too many times, clichés, purple prose, weak characters, unrealistic dialogue, telling instead of showing. Well you get the idea.

These worries literally froze my mind. I’d type and retype the first paragraph for weeks! Sure, I knew to just write the story and fix it later. But no one told the editor on my shoulder.

It has taken years for me to get through my thick skull that writing is in layers. First layer are the bones of the story. Spit out the bones!

Second layer: put flesh on the bones! It is okay to have skinny parts and fatty parts. The next layer will make all things balanced. Flesh out the bones!

Third layer: add the muscle and shape the story up. This is my most recent discovery. Because I knew the ending, I put foreshadowing in the beginning. It really gave my story depth and interest. Give some curves to the story!

Fourth layer: Fine-tune the story. Find all the little blemishes and clear them up. Clean up the story!

The Evil Editor doesn’t like this approach. I can attest to the truth of this because she left my shoulder and went to someone else who has yet to discover that writing a novel is done in layers!

What do YOU do to tame that Evil Editor?