Face Off Friday: Say it pretty vs. Say what you mean


Scott over at The Literary Lab (great blog, btw) had a post this week on overwritten prose. He argued that writers, especially newbies, often try too hard to sound "writerly" and trump up their prose with unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. In other words, purple prose.

Wiki defines purple prose as "prose that is overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context."

Here is the famous example (from Wiki): A more recent author famous for purple prose is Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803–73), who begins his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
**I will say I don't mind "It was a dark and stormy night" as it's also the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, my favorite childhood book.***

In the comments section of his blog, a debate began. Some argued that purple prose is actually very common in many of the classics and shouldn't be vilified. They also argued that just because someone should write accurately, does not mean they have to be brief. Brevity can sometimes come at the sacrifice of lush and beautiful language.

So here we go with the face off:

Say it Pretty vs. Say What You Mean Prose

For love of Purple:

  • Many classics, which have been lauded as great writing, contain purple passages
  • Without beautiful, flowery words, we're reduced to lackluster sentences
  • Why do we have such a rich language if we aren't going to use all those lovely words?
  • This type of prose does not mean it has to be inaccurate writing. You can say what you mean and still say it in a beautiful way.
  • Brevity is a trend, not a rule.

On the less is more side:
  • Say what you mean and don't dress it up to make it look fancier.
  • Being brief and accurate does not mean the writing must suffer--straightforward prose can be beautiful
    In The Book on Writing by Paula LaRoque, she suggest an exercise where you take a passage and only use one syllable words. When a high school student performed this exercise, she/he came up with "When I stepped through the rocks to glimpse the coast for the first time in my life, I was awed. The wide blue sea glowed with light from the sun, and wisps of smooth white clouds soared in the huge free sky." Maybe too many adjectives still, but pretty, using only one syllable words. I love the idea of the huge free sky.
Lisa McCann (Wake- excerpt) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak
) also do a really good job of being brief but impactful.
  • Purple prose often tells instead of shows
  • It often contains unnecessary information.
  • It's painful to read.

So, I will admit that I have a personal bias on this. I hate long passages of flowery language. This type of writing has never done it for me even before I knew what purple prose was. I often find myself skimming through pages of long descriptions to get to the "good" part. Maybe this is a sign of undiagnosed ADD, I'm not sure. However, I can say that I don't enjoy these passages. I have a very functional imagination. You tell me the kids are in a high school gym, I've got a picture. I don't need to know the color of the floors or that is has basketball goals, unless either of those play some crucial role in the plot. But I know not everyone feels this way.

What's your opinion? Do you love the beauty of this type of writing or do you skim past these passages like I do? Do you catch yourself putting passages like these in your own writing or do you have the opposite problem and struggle with description?

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