What Is Purple Prose (And How Can You Avoid It?)

One thing I despise even more than a misplaced apostrophe is what’s known as purple prose. But what on earth does that mean, and how can you stop yourself from using it?

Read on and I will make like Clarissa and explain it all (and if you get that reference we can be friends too).

If you’re writing marketing content, it could be for blogs, social media, adverts, editorials, press releases, billboards or petrol pumps (and yes, I have genuinely written for all of these). 

Most of your content needs to be tailored to your chosen platform, but there is one simple thing you can do today to make it instantly better. Simply stop using purple prose!

What actually is purple prose?

Purple prose is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “writing that is too elaborate or ornate”. The emphasis here, for me, is on the word too, as purple prose can come in many forms. Yet what they all have in common is the fact they are all just so extra.

Why is it called that? 

Purple prose was named after a straight-talking Roman poet named Horace, who called out his fellow poets’ flowery language. He compared their elaborate attempts at literature to the patches of purple cloth worn by some of the most diva-like members of Roman society as a symbol of wealth.

The term “purple prose” was Horace’s sassy way of criticising writers whose language was overly pretentious.

Why is purple prose bad?

Now, any Friends fan knows Joey’s adoption letter is all the evidence we need that purple prose is not your friend. And honestly, I mean that from the bottom of my full-sized aortic pumps.

But purple prose isn’t just about using long words, as arguably there’s a place in your content for long words used in the right way. Purple prose is more about embellishing your content with anything that doesn’t really need to be there. So, think excessive adjectives, overly long sentences and words that feel out of place within the context. 

Apologies to any Twihards out there, but in researching a good example of purple prose to show you, this passage from the vampire blockbuster kept cropping up:

“His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.”

In many cases, purple perpetrators believe they will come across as more intelligent by writing in this way. The reality is that purple prose usually makes the writer seem like they’re simply trying too hard.

What are the dangers of using it?

Purple prose is more than just annoying. It can actually have a detrimental effect on your writing. Find out the dangers of using purple prose right here.

1. It’s hard to read

Multisyllabic words, meandering sentences and a torrent of adjectives can be tough to digest. Not only will your readers struggle to keep the thread, they may not even understand what you’re trying to say in the first place.

And if a reader leaves your website to google the words you’re using in your content, what are the chances of them coming back?

2. It’s attention-seeking

Purple prose draws all the attention to the words and takes all the purpose out of your meaning. After all, words are important, but it’s how they make us feel or what they prompt us to do that counts. If all your audience sees is words, it’s more than likely they will miss the point.

3. It’s unnecessary

Perhaps most importantly of all, purple prose is completely unnecessary in most instances. Why isolate your audience by sending an army of adjectives into battle, when you could valiantly win them over by writing in plain English?

How can I avoid using purple prose?

So if you’ve now identified purple prose could be clouding your writing, how can you go about dialling it down?

George Orwell’s six rules for writing have stayed with me throughout my copywriting career and they serve as excellent guidelines for purging the purple.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

The first two are my personal faves and have guided me through 15 years of writing. Whatever I’m working on, they buzz around my head reminding me to hold back from overdoing it. 

Here are a few more simple steps to keep your copy in check.

Focus on your audience

Remember who you are writing for and you shouldn’t ever stray too far from your purpose. Unless your website, brochure or social media are parodies aimed at a pretentious literary crowd, it really won’t be necessary to resort to purple prose to communicate your point. 

Empathise with your reader

Leap further into the mind of your audience and actually put yourself in their position. What will they want to hear from you? Is it a bunch of ornate adjectives? Or would they rather you got straight to the point? If you read through your writing from the perspective of an existing or potential customer and sections of it speak to you the way they should, it’s time to get editing and make things much more simple. Because if they are moved by your words, what’s the point of writing them?

Always be yourself

Ultimately, purple prose is unlikely to reflect your own true voice and style, so always try to be yourself and write in a way that sounds like you. There’s nothing wrong with developing your writing style over time, but do it in a way that feels authentic and interesting, rather than overblown and excessive. 

Talk to the freelance copywriter for female founders

In short, the best way to achieve your best marketing content is by banishing the bullsh*t, staying true to yourself and your brand, and writing straight from your full-sized aortic pumps.

And if you can’t manage that yourself, I’d be more than happy to be your comrade in the war against purple prose – book your free 15-minute discovery call to see how I can create blog posts, website copy, and repurpose your content for socials ad emails to get you seen, celebrated, and hired as a female founder.

Purple veg good, purple prose bad

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