Good writing is descriptive. It’s important that readers see, hear, smell, and touch what’s in the scene. However, many writers—beginners and experienced—make the mistake of writing with too much description. This excessive elaboration is called purple prose, named after the expensive and luxurious dye used in early history.
While many writers are tempted to describe specific scenes and characters with too many words, readers might think the “flowery” description gets in the way of the story and choose to stop reading. However, it is very important to keep them involved in the story.
Let’s face it: Readers live in a fast-paced world made possible by a television remote and a computer mouse. Coupled with increasingly short attention spans, it is possible that Legends of Sleepy Hollow, for example, would not hold a reader’s attention today. Although many scenes are crafted with great description, nothing happens until far into the book.
To avoid unnecessary prose, writers must reduce the use of adjectives and adverbs. Nancy Lamb says in her book, Crafting Stories for Children, “Adjectives interfere with prose more than they improve it and adverbs kill a sentence more than they enliven it.”
Alex Cabal says in his blog post, Keeping the Purple out of Your Prose, “You know you’ve got purple prose when you start noticing that your writing is so extravagant and ornate that it draws attention to itself and away from the narrative.”
Conscientious writers spot and replace their pet adjectives and adverbs. Many end with “ly” or “ing.” Check out these examples:
Don’t say: She spoke softly into his ear.
Say: She whispered in his ear.
Don’t say: He ran quickly away from the starting line.
Say: He bolted from the starting line.
Don’t say: He answered angrily.
Say: He thundered.
Don’t say: Elizabeth smiled prettily, her eyes dancing seductively in the moonlight
Say: When Elizabeth smiled, her eyes danced in the moonlight.
Don’t say: David walked briskly, pounding his heels into the parking lot.
Say: David strutted across the parking lot.
Adjectives and adverbs tell, where strong descriptive sentences show. Write sharp and clear prose to make your articles or books more readable. Don’t block your story with flowery language. Instead let the action and emotion flow to keep your readers involved.
Rebecca McClanahan shows in Word Painting how to use figures of speech—metaphors, similes, hyperboles, and personifications—to write effective description. She says, “We can all increase our ability to recognize resemblances in the world around us.” Consider this metaphor from her book. “He carried his guilt like a suitcase.” We can understand the meaning of the character’s heavy burden in just a few words.
Choose powerful words. They don’t have to be big or unfamiliar—just strong. Ernest Hemingway once said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
So bury the adjectives and adverbs; keep the good ones, and craft prose that keeps your story moving. Your writing will improve and your audience will grow.
Valuable links for writers: