You know when you read a book a get to a passage or a line and say, “Great Scott, the things I would do to be able to write sentences like that.” Often, in trying to write a sentence like that, you end up with a writer’s disease called purple prose.
Purple Prose: Writing so extravagant or orate that it breaks the flow of the narrative and draws attention to itself.
The Elements of Style calls this writing that is “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” There’s no solid example of purple prose since the definition is subjective, but it is something you definitely don’t want. Below is one example of the evolution from concise language to purple prose:
- Plain: He set the cup down.
- Middle Ground: He eased the Big Gulp onto the table.
- ACK: Without haste, the tall, blond man lowered the huge, plastic, gas station cup with a bright red straw onto the slick surface of the coffee table.
Hopefully no one is shooting for the last example.
This article demonstrates quite well what I think is a huge problem in ‘writing advice’ overall; the pervasive idea that some kinds of writing are inherently good while others are inherently bad.
No. writing isn’t like that.
All these styles and techniques are tools in your toolbox. Good writing is writing that knows when to use which tool. What if you’re writing Dickens pastiche? What if you’re trying to sound baroque? What if you’re writing a deliberately over-the-top steampunk story in a faux-victorian style? In those instances, purple prose will be your friend, because while purple isn’t -impressive- in this day and age it’s sometimes beautifully comedic or lush or otherwise USEFUL.
Beige prose, poorly utilized, is equally invasive and full of VOICE OF THE AUTHOR and has the added insult of being -boring-.
I want everyone to stop and go read the brilliant blog How To Write Badly Well, especially everything in Homage Week.