Who remembers the book from almost two decades ago, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris? Great stuff, that. The title always reminds me of copywriters who think writing flowery, complicated prose is the best way to show off their skills. The reality couldn't be farther from the truth.
Great content needs to be more than just "pretty". It needs depth and insight. It needs to avoid purple prose not like the plague, but because it is the plague.
What is purple prose?
The Roman poet Horace coined purple prose eons ago. People used to patch their clothes with purple cloth because the color purple was a sign of wealth. Horace thought writers patched their prose with purple phrases to appear as more elegant and intellectual than they really were.
Purple prose is flowery language that doesn't help your reader understand your point, but it sounds so pretty. It's extravagant and showy, but it's purely self-indulgent. You feel like an artist when you write it, but your readers will notice a mile away when you're using big words to impress them. And trust me, they won't be impressed.
Have you ever hit a brick wall when writing content and you're not sure where to go next? Or you're working on a 1,200 word article, but only have about 800 words of solid, researched text? This is when writers might turn to purple prose as a filler. Bad choice.
Why you should avoid purple prose
It detracts from the meat of what you've written. Readers get bogged down trying to understand where you're going instead of nodding along with your easy-to-read content and agreeing with what you've written. Particularly for digital content, readers want small, easily digestible bits of information. They want to skim read for understanding and expect you to get to the point immediately.
Wordy writing confuses readers. And frankly, it's boring to read. IBM reports that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. I had to look up quintillion (add 18 zeros!). When you're facing this monumental competition every day for readers, you've got to make every word count.
Examples of purple prose
Here are a few ways to find purple prose and correct it before you hit "publish" on your blog post or send your content to a client.
1. Take a look at your adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.
Example: The collection of obviously much-needed money was deemed highly appropriate for the incredible proliferation of deserving charities vying for favor.
Whoa. That's a mouthful, and I'm still not sure what it means. Adjectives, adverbs, and verbs are not bad per se, but when used in a flowery manner, detract from your meaning.
Let's deconstruct this example:
- Passive verbs? - Check. "Was deemed" tells you nothing about who did the deeming. The sentence should be written with the subject first and then the verb.
- Hidden verbs? - Check. "Collection" and "proliferation" are two verbs (collect and proliferate) with a suffix tacked on to make them sound more important. Rewrite the sentence with verbs instead of these nominalizations.
- Adverbs? - Check. Adverbs themselves aren't the problem; using too many is. "Obviously," "highly," and "deserving" are too much to take in one sentence. And they add nothing to its meaning.
- Adjectives? - Check. Is "much-needed" really necessary? How about "incredible"? Probably not.
Rewritten example: We deemed it necessary to collect money for the many charities that needed funds.
2. Simplify your language and word choice
Example: The subject of the memo identified several opportunities to proceed with the plan to provide tablets to each student in the school system.
There's a lot of corporate wording and diction issues with this sentence. Here's a deconstruction of it:
- Proceed - Does this sound stuffy to you, too? Why not just say "go ahead"?
- Provide - You could just as easily say "give."
- System - "System" is an abstract word that doesn't give much information.
- Subject - I threw this one in because it can be simplified, but sometimes shouldn't, like when you refer to the "subject line" of an email. In this case, "The subject of" is extraneous and can be deleted.
Rewritten example: The memo identified several opportunities to go ahead with the plan to give tablets to each student in the school district.
Simpler is better, especially when you're competing for click-throughs and social media shares.
3. Write short, active sentences.
Purple prose crops up in long, rambling sentences. When you keep your sentences short and your pacing moving forward at a good clip, your readers will stick with you.
Example: The gates will open at 5:00pm tonight so concert goers can arrive early enough to find a seat on the lawn, enjoy a picnic dinner, and visit with friends before the music begins at 7:30pm, meaning you'll have plenty of time to relax and get ready for amazing sounds.
There's simply too much going on, right? Fifty words in this sentence is about 39 too long. You want your sentence lengths between 11 and 18 words and to vary their lengths to keep readers interested.
Rewritten example: The gates open at 5:00pm tonight for concert goers. Arrive early, find a seat on the lawn, and enjoy a picnic dinner. You'll have plenty of time to visit with friends before the music begins at 7:30pm. Join us for a relaxing, amazing evening.
How to correct purple prose
ProWritingAid is the best answer to fighting purple prose in its many forms. Each one of these examples lit up the reports in my ProWritingAid add-on like a firework. If the editing tool came with alarm bells, my eardrums would have popped.
The beauty of an editing tool like ProWritingAid is you can write freely and dump your thoughts on the screen. Then use the tool to find the purple prose and accept or reject its suggestions. You're in control of edits made to make sure your meaning is clear and your unique voice shines through.
The best way to be more productive, earn more money, and delight your clients is by writing fast, editing smart, and sending your copy promptly. Let the right tools work for you so you spend more time writing.
Don't try to sound "infinitely intelligent with polysyllabic vocabulary and flowery phraseology." See what I did there?
Try to have a simple conversation with a friend—your reader.
Let us know in the comments below if you've ever read purple prose content and what your knee-jerk reaction was.