How to Avoid Purple Prose

Unless you mean it or it tells us something useful, description is often quite dull. Make sure you mean every word.

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Often when you start to write there’s a tendency to string word after word together, like a child making a daisy chain, assuming that more is inevitably better. As in: The sun-dappled soft blue waves lapped lovingly at the rich shell-strewn sandy shore, like a faithful old labrador licking longingly, hopefully, at his master’s withered, crabby old hand.

I’ve read a fair few short story competition entries now, and there’s been an awful lot of that sort of guff. Why do people write like this? Is it because they were forced to study A Christmas Carol at school and think that’s what writing’s like? Firstly, Dickens was effectively paid by the word, and you, old bean, are not, unless you’re writing for Woman’s Weekly, in which case I have nothing to say to you; second, no one could love Dickens more than me, and even I skip the descriptive bits.

This is often known as purple prose. The waves broke on the shore, said Virginia Woolf. That’ll do. Of course they did. What else would waves do? More isn’t better, not always, or even often. George Orwell said that good prose is like a window pane, and I doubt a more sensible remark has ever been made about writing. If you like the sea and want to write about it, by all means go ahead: but the passage above draws attention only to the writer, not the sea. Like looking through a window pane and seeing only smeary great finger prints.

Anyway, why tell us you like the sea? Many do. So what? If the sounds of the sea inform your earliest memories, if you feel a day’s wasted when you haven’t been near it, if it reminds you of your long dead, much loved gran, the only woman who was ever kind to you, tell us that and quick, or you’ve lost us. A useful mechanism to avoid purple prose is to ensure that you write things are true, informative, that you really feel; that you are writing down ideas and feelings you desperately need to express, rather than simply writing for the sake of it. Orwell said his best writing was politically motivated, but he meant that in the very broadest sense of the word political – “the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” I’d call that philosophical writing rather than political, but whatever: writing must have some purpose behind it, is the point, or it tends to descend into vulgar waffle.

If a description tells you something interesting about the describer, that’s generally a good sign. The narrator’s attitude provides an interesting layer of subtext to a scene, which is often what gives good descriptions their appeal. Make a description sarcastic, revolting, angry, erotic, and you’ve saved yourself the job of telling us about the describer. Window panes let you look in as well as out. If that description of the sea is followed by: George sighed and turned from the bounteous beauty of nature to finish dismembering his postman with a pointy rock.

…then you’ve got me back on side: a psychopath who gets soppy about seascapes strikes me as interesting.

In modern fiction, every word has to work damn hard to justify its own existence. No free-loaders. If it needn’t be there, chop it away, ruthless as George. But most important, really think about what you have to express, why it’s burning a hole in your brain. And if it’s not burning a hole, write something else instead.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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  • Waff says:

    I’m really shocked that you would publish something like this. A lot of people entering your short story competition will be dipping their toes into writing for the first time. They need encouragement and, where they could be doing something better, sensitive feedback. What they do not need is a mocking opinion piece written by the editor of this site and one of the judges of said competition. Given that your organisation’s porported values are empowering creativity and promoting trust, this article and its condescending references to competition entries is a gross betrayal of these values, and so unprofessional.

    • Melissa Todd says:

      You make a good point I think, and I’m truly sorry if the piece sounded mocking. In my defence, I do go on to compare elaborate descriptions to Dickens; I would have offered sensitive detailed feedback had it been on a one to one basis, rather than blanket brutality; and I am planning an essay on how blown away and struck down with envy I’ve been by the strength of the competition entries. But yes, I could probably have written something more circumspect. Apologies. Keep writing. Also, I don’t know everything, or indeed anything. Feel free to ignore me.

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