What is Purple Prose? The Case Against Overly Ornate Writing

Sean Glatch  |  January 3, 2023  | 

Ah, purple prose: that ornate room of language: that jeweled scabbard with which the writer unsheaths their mightiest thoughts, decorated and aglitter in the light of passing eyes; so wrought with its own exigence, it twists the reader’s mind, so labyrinthine.

If you didn’t understand that paragraph, I didn’t either. It’s not good writing, but it is an example of purple prose. Purple prose is writing that’s elaborate and ornate. It often sounds like imitation Victorian Era literature—think Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, but an odd sort of cover-band version.

Why do people write purple prose? What purpose does it serve? Is it always an error in style, or are there reasons to learn how to write purple prose?

This article contains a deep dive into the topic. In short, you should avoid employing purple prose in your work—but let’s examine why, alongside instances in which it might be a useful writing strategy.

First, the basics. What is purple prose?

What is Purple Prose?

Purple prose describes a passage of elaborate, ornate writing, whose style gets in the way and ultimately does not benefit readers. It is laborious to read, conveying small amounts of information through sprawling sentences and large, abstract words.

Purple prose is elaborate, ornate writing whose style draws attention to itself, gets in the way, and ultimately does not benefit readers.

Writers of purple prose might find inspiration in the writing styles of erstwhile authors, particularly those from the Victorian Era. If you’ve ever read A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, or Middlemarch, then you know just what I’m talking about: those long, meandering passages of prose, complete with semicolons, archaisms, and a preponderance of prepositions.

However, writers of old wrote very differently from us, and for good reason. Writers were often paid by the word by the periodicals that published their work. Take this paragraph from a random page I just turned to in Dickens’ Great Expectations:

When the day came round for my return to the scene of the deed of violence, my terrors reached their height. Whether myrmidons of Justice, especially sent down from London, would be lying in ambush behind the gate;—whether Miss Havisham, preferring to take personal vengeance for an outrage done to her house, might rise in those grave-clothes of hers, draw a pistol, and shoot me dead:—whether suborned boys—a numerous band of mercenaries—might be engaged to fall upon me in the brewery, and cuff me until I was no more;—it was high testimony to my confidence in the spirit of the pale young gentleman, that I never imagined him accessory to these retaliations; they always came into my mind as the acts of injudicious relatives of his, goaded on by the state of his visage and an indignant sympathy with the family features.

Here’s how a contemporary author, omitting needless words, could write it:

I worried that the boy’s relatives would punish me for beating him up.

Of course, Dickens’ paragraph is 145 words. And the writing isn’t entirely bad: it’s good to use examples in your prose, and to use visual language. But, the point has already been made while Dickens continues to belabor it, all the while using obscure language (Myrmidons? Please!). It would be unfair to call Dickens an agent of purple prose, since the style was so different back then; but contemporary writers certainly shouldn’t write like this.

Make no mistake: purple prose is an error of style. It makes it difficult for the reader to understand what the writer actually intends. It also betrays a lack of confidence: the writer, not certain their own writing and ideas are valuable, decorates their work in pretentiousness, hoping the reader won’t see through their seeming lack of talent, brains, etc.

In truth, writers should trust in their ideas. Clean, efficient prose will always work better than elaborate, ornate sentences. We’ll talk about how to avoid this mistake in your writing, but first, let’s dive deeper into purple prose.

Elements of Purple Prose Style

In a moment, we’ll share some purple prose examples that demonstrate the flaws in this approach to writing style. But first, let’s parse the elements of purple prose:

  • Wordiness: A passage of purple prose might include sentences of extreme length. Even if the sentences are short, the writing uses more words rather than fewer, and the paragraphs, also, are much longer than can sustain the average reader’s attention.
  • Complex sentences (syntaxis): Purple prose sentences are rarely simple. Their clauses might be connected by colons and semicolons, and they frequently have sequences of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases. This sentence construction is known as syntaxis, a rhetorical device best used sparingly and with intent.
  • Unnecessary vocabulary: Purple prose authors employ unnecessarily obscure or erudite vocabulary. They’ll say “loquacious” when they mean “talkative,” “pusillanimous” when they mean “timid,” and “hebdomary” when they mean “weekly.” Now, there are instances in which the more pretentious word will prove useful. But, a passage of purple prose will often have a bunch of these words crowded together, obfuscating (obscuring) meaning and flummoxing (confusing) the reader with their perorations (ornate speech).
  • Overwhelming detail: Good writing will tell only the important stuff. It will also show the most striking details, without overwhelming the reader with imagery. Purple prose authors will often waste 100s of words describing minute, inconsequential details, which get in the way of simply telling the story.
  • Lack of action: Because of their obsession with detail, fancy language, and complicated sentences, the writers of purple prose get so lost in their own voice that they forget to tell us what happens next. Action verbs get lost in a sea of adjectives and ornateness. Characters themselves forget their own conflicts and motivations, drowning instead in oceans of erudition. When writers get stuck crafting passages of purple prose, they lose sight of action, and the story stalls.
  • Lack of substance: Simply put, purple prose sounds like it conveys more information than it actually does.

Before we move on, I want to clarify: a sentence can be long, ornate, and erudite without being purple—but only if every word is doing essential work.

Writing can be ornate without being purple—if every word is important and doing essential work.

Some contemporary authors certainly have more elaborate prose styles—Toni Morrison comes to mind, as does Margaret Atwood. But these prose stylists make every word matter. Playing with sentence length can play with the pacing and tension of prose; using strong vocabulary can help spotlight important ideas. But these need to be intentional stylistic decisions, earned by the employment of effective writing strategies.

Purple prose only describes ornate text that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the piece.

In other words, purple prose only describes ornate text that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the piece as a whole. If each word is doing important work (advancing the story, communicating ideas clearly, moving the reader, etc.), then it doesn’t qualify as purple.

Purple Prose Examples

Let’s take a look at some purple prose examples. All of these examples come from the Victorian Era—I don’t want to poke fun at any living, contemporary writers, and the Victorians often wrote like today’s purple prose authors.

As mentioned, Victorian Era writers often employed purple prose strategies. To be clear: these writers were not writing purple prose for the same reason that contemporary authors do. Rather, the Victorian writing style was intentionally laborious and ornate, a product of different influences including: a pay-by-word publishing model, cultural obsessions with Realism and Naturalism, and the vocabularies writers used to appeal to their educated, literary readership.

It is also worth noting that the Victorians were writers that “told” instead of “showed.” In other words, they wanted their writing to be as close to reality as possible, so they described everything in minute detail. This standard changed in the 20th century, particularly as the idea of “show, don’t tell” became a pillar of university writing programs.

Passages from Victorian writing often demonstrate what would be purple prose today.

So, while it’s anachronistic to call Victorian writers purple prose authors, these passages do a great job of demonstrating what we would call purple writing. Let’s look at some examples. I won’t dunk on the writing too hard, but I will explain why these passages don’t do well, stylistically, for contemporary audiences, with lessons to be learned for your own prose.

1. Excerpt from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

She was small and slight in person; pale, sandy-haired, and with eyes habitually cast down: when they looked up they were very large, odd, and attractive; so attractive that the Reverend Mr. Crisp, fresh from Oxford, and curate to the Vicar of Chiswick, the Reverend Mr. Flowerdew, fell in love with Miss Sharp; being shot dead by a glance of her eyes which was fired all the way across Chiswick Church from the school-pew to the reading-desk. This infatuated young man used sometimes to take tea with Miss Pinkerton, to whom he had been presented by his mamma, and actually proposed something like marriage in an intercepted note, which the one-eyed apple-woman was charged to deliver. Mrs. Crisp was summoned from Buxton, and abruptly carried off her darling boy; but the idea, even, of such an eagle in the Chiswick dovecot caused a great flutter in the breast of Miss Pinkerton, who would have sent away Miss Sharp but that she was bound to her under a forfeit, and who never could thoroughly believe the young lady’s protestations that she had never exchanged a single word with Mr. Crisp, except under her own eyes on the two occasions when she had met him at tea.

Vanity Fair was revolutionary for its time. It works as a satire of English culture and literature while also being an intense rumination on the nature of the human spirit. It is also extremely wordy.

The above paragraph can be boiled down to this: Miss Sharp’s large, attractive eyes made Mr. Crisp fall in love with her, to the chagrin of Mrs. Crisp.

Some details here are useful, such as each character’s relationships to one another. Certainly, a novel which critiques high society will have to note the complicated, unspoken relationships people have to one another. But to do so in this many words, overwrought with details that aren’t relevant at this very second, makes this paragraph unthinkably tedious.

Thackeray himself got lost in his own details. The published novel occasionally supplies the wrong name or piece of backstory.

Here’s what a writer might want to pull to avoid writing purple prose:

  • Only supply details that are relevant to the current moment of the story.
  • Don’t write backstories that people will inevitably forget later.
  • Keep sentences from being bogged down by details. All those colons and semicolons are not helping the reader keep straight of which detail belongs to which person.

2. Excerpt from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

“But I have heard that, with some persons, temperance—that is, moderation—is almost impossible; and if abstinence be an evil (which some have doubted), no one will deny that excess is a greater. Some parents have entirely prohibited their children from tasting intoxicating liquors; but a parent’s authority cannot last for ever; children are naturally prone to hanker after forbidden things; and a child, in such a case, would be likely to have a strong curiosity to taste, and try the effect of what has been so lauded and enjoyed by others, so strictly forbidden to himself—which curiosity would generally be gratified on the first convenient opportunity; and the restraint once broken, serious consequences might ensue. I don’t pretend to be a judge of such matters, but it seems to me, that this plan of Mrs. Graham’s, as you describe it, Mrs. Markham, extraordinary as it may be, is not without its advantages; for here you see the child is delivered at once from temptation; he has no secret curiosity, no hankering desire; he is as well acquainted with the tempting liquors as he ever wishes to be; and is thoroughly disgusted with them, without having suffered from their effects.”

In other words: it is better to give children access to alcohol, as they’ll be less inclined to be drunkards.

Spoken by The Reverend Michael Millward, this passage of dialogue has some really good characterization. Millward comes across as haughty and self-indulgent, aware that he has no authority but choosing to express his opinions anyway. Certainly, he loves the sound of his voice.

But, do people talk like this?

During the Victorian Era, possibly. Members of the upper class were certainly schooled in the classics and in rhetoric. They chose to speak in lofty, elevated sentences, as part of their self-aware “superiority” to the masses. Those grandiose sentences, complete with semicolons and em-dashes, might not be too far from how people actually spoke back then. Of course, we can’t say this for certain, since people always speak differently from how they write, and we don’t have recordings of speech from the year 1848, only letters.

For more on how people spoke versus wrote during the Victorian Era, this Reddit thread is quite interesting.

In modern writing, this sort of dialogue certainly doesn’t fly. No one talks like this. Modern speech is much more clipped and succinct, even if we do meander our way to what we mean. And, as any writer will tell you, written dialogue never sounds exactly like how we really speak to one another. In literature, writers avoid penning filler language, miscommunications, and unrelated speech (unless it actually is relevant and necessary to the story). Dialogue must reveal character and advance the story; anything else is wasted words.

Here’s what a writer might want to pull to avoid writing purple prose:

  • Use dialogue as a means of revealing character and advancing the story. Millward’s dialogue certainly reveals character, but the conversation transpiring has little to do with the actual story.
  • Approximate how people speak in the real world, though without the use of filler language. (Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, the rules vary. We’ll address this later!)
  • Once again, don’t clutter your writing with sprawling sentences and paragraphs. That’s not to say you should avoid long sentences completely, but use them wisely, and keep the audience’s attention in mind.

3. Excerpt from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

The village of Marlott lay amid the north-eastern undulations of the beautiful Vale of Blakemore, or Blackmoor, aforesaid, an engirdled and secluded region, for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter, though within a four hours’ journey from London.

It is a vale whose acquaintance is best made by viewing it from the summits of the hills that surround it—except perhaps during the droughts of summer. An unguided ramble into its recesses in bad weather is apt to engender dissatisfaction with its narrow, tortuous, and miry ways.

This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by the bold chalk ridge that embraces the prominences of Hambledon Hill, Bulbarrow, Nettlecombe-Tout, Dogbury, High Stoy, and Bubb Down. The traveller from the coast, who, after plodding northward for a score of miles over calcareous downs and corn-lands, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through. Behind him the hills are open, the sun blazes down upon fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless. Here, in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine. Arable lands are few and limited; with but slight exceptions the prospect is a broad rich mass of grass and trees, mantling minor hills and dales within the major. Such is the Vale of Blackmoor.

The Victorians were fascinated by nature and by landscapes—particularly, what those landscapes might reflect and reveal about the human psyche. Certainly, setting is an essential element of good fiction writing, as we need to know where the story is set and what that setting tells us about our plot and characters. But, do we need to do it in so many words?

Perhaps these paragraphs would be easier to read if I hailed from England. Nonetheless, I simply do not care which villages neighbor the Vale of Blackmoor. Nor do I care about its alternate spellings, or how best to view it. And the word calcareous, please. Unless the target reader is a farmer, why do I need to know there’s calcium in the soil?

Certainly, passages of this description are beautiful. The author paints a portrait how an artist wields a brush. Attention to details like the horizon and middle distance are rare and gorgeous, and it isn’t difficult to imagine, and even live inside of, this setting. It might even prove relevant that the land is rarely arable. Perhaps this will be a symbol for something later in the story—after all, the Victorians loved using pathetic fallacy.

But, there are so many details here that I start to lose track of things. In order for me to picture precisely what the writer wants me to, I have to reread this passage several times. Victorian readers might have been okay with this (they had time!), but many contemporary readers don’t want to read a sentence over and over to grasp its meaning.

Here’s what a writer might want to pull to avoid writing purple prose:

  • Rather than sharing every single beautiful detail, writers should hone only the most beautiful and salient. Spotlight what the reader must know, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.
  • Stick to one perspective. We don’t need to know what a traveler or a painter might see. We only care about what the characters, or else the narrator, see, and how that sight affects the mood of the story.
  • Don’t get lost in the details. In other words, don’t isolate the setting description from everything else. The exploration of setting should be integrated into the story as it advances. There should always be some sort of action occurring close by. Separating these abstract reminiscences on setting from storytelling makes the reader quickly forget the most important details.

Tips for Avoiding Purple Prose

In the above purple prose examples, we explain the errors in style (if these passages were written for a contemporary audience). But, while we might have covered the mechanics of purple prose writing, what can writers actually do to avoid making these mistakes?

Here are tips for keeping your non-purple prose style concise, competent, and a pleasure to read.

1. Write in your voice, not “the voice of a writer”

Many beginning writers think they need to “sound like a writer” to write. Nothing could be further from the truth. While creative writing does require a certain amount of artistry, it also requires honesty and authenticity. Readers can tell when a writer is donning a persona. Writing as yourself will make your work much more compelling.

But, how do you “sound like yourself” as a writer?

This is a complex question, one that sits outside the scope of this article. But, your “voice” as an author is the indelible thumbprint that separates you from every author around you. It is something you find and keep re-finding throughout your writing journey, and it is something that can only be honed through the work of being a writer. The following six tips will help you hone your voice, not the purple prose voice of any imagined capital-w “Writer.”

2. Lead with meaning and substance

What makes purple prose so pernicious is that it conveys very little information, under the guise of presenting a lot. Instead of telling you that an orange sat on the table, purple prose authors will tell you that the orange was “bedimpled and perforated a thousand times over, with a soft spot hidden at the rind where it rested on the old oak bench.”

It sounds like I’ve just told you a lot, but that better be a pretty significant orange, otherwise I’ve told you nothing.

Writers should lead with meaning and substance. They should focus on conveying information clearly and cleanly, without spending too much time on minutiae.

Now, that’s not to say you should sound like a textbook. Writing is, after all, an art. But ornateness should serve an artistic purpose. If you spend a lot of time writing about an orange, that should reveal something true about the story. 

For example, the orange might be a recurring symbol in your story, and how it looks reflects something essential about how your characters are feeling. Or, perhaps you’re writing a tropical version of the Adam and Eve story, with the orange replacing the apple. In such instances, slow attention to detail might serve your reader well.

But, if it’s just an orange, let it be just an orange. Dedicate your description to what matters most in the story. You can certainly be detailed, ornate, even flowery. But you must convey information, every word should matter, and the story should keep advancing.

3. Keep your reader in mind

When you write (and, particularly when you edit), you should keep in mind whether your imagined reader will understand your writing. This ties into the above tip: you want to think about the information you’re conveying, how you’re conveying it, and how a reader might receive it.

Take this passage, from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady:

Ralph Touchett was a philosopher, but nevertheless he knocked at his mother’s door (at a quarter to seven) with a good deal of eagerness. Even philosophers have their preferences, and it must be admitted that of his progenitors his father ministered most to his sense of the sweetness of filial dependence. His father, as he had often said to himself, was the more motherly; his mother, on the other hand, was paternal, and even, according to the slang of the day, gubernatorial. She was nevertheless very fond of her only child and had always insisted on his spending three months of the year with her. Ralph rendered perfect justice to her affection and knew that in her thoughts and her thoroughly arranged and servanted life his turn always came after the other nearest subjects of her solicitude, the various punctualities of performance of the workers of her will. He found her completely dressed for dinner, but she embraced her boy with her gloved hands and made him sit on the sofa beside her. She enquired scrupulously about her husband’s health and about the young man’s own, and, receiving no very brilliant account of either, remarked that she was more than ever convinced of her wisdom in not exposing herself to the English climate. In this case she also might have given way. Ralph smiled at the idea of his mother’s giving way, but made no point of reminding her that his own infirmity was not the result of the English climate, from which he absented himself for a considerable part of each year.

Henry James wrote brilliant portraits of his characters, and his novels involve some of the most richly conceived, minutely detailed people in all of English literature. But, for a contemporary reader, this paragraph is weighed down by so much detail, so many examinations of thoughts and feelings unrelated to the present action, that the reader will inevitably forget most of what’s written in this paragraph.

After all, this is what actually just transpired: Ralph entered his mother’s room; they talked about the weather.

Now, that’s very boring. Certainly, a little artistry will go a long way, and some details in this paragraph are important: it’s good to know about Ralph’s relationship to his mother, as well as about his health. How can we make this engaging for contemporary readers, while still conveying what they need to know?

This is where elements like concision, attention to the most salient details, and visual writing come into play. Use of literary devices can also help us make our writing engaging and imaginative. We can certainly learn everything we need to learn about Ralph and his mother, but let’s do it in fewer words, with attention to what matters most.

4. Break rules with intent

Avoiding purple prose is not a hard and fast rule. In a moment, we’ll discuss how to write purple prose responsibly. But, if you’re going to write ornately or pretentiously, do it with intention.

An example of an ornate writer, who most certainly is not purple, is Virginia Woolf. While her writing can be described as flowery, there’s no doubt that every word still matters in her work. Here’s an example of writing that certainly breaks the rules in this article, but does so stylishly and with intent:

And Miss Brush went out, came back; laid papers on the table; and Hugh produced his fountain pen; his silver fountain pen, which had done twenty years’ service, he said, unscrewing the cap. It was still in perfect order; he had shown it to the makers; there was no reason, they said, why it should ever wear out; which was somehow to Hugh’s credit, and to the credit of the sentiments which his pen expressed (so Richard Dalloway felt) as Hugh began carefully writing capital letters with rings round them in the margin, and thus marvellously reduced Lady Bruton’s tangles to sense, to grammar such as the editor of the Times, Lady Bruton felt, watching the marvellous transformation, must respect. Hugh was slow. Hugh was pertinacious. Richard said one must take risks. Hugh proposed modifications in deference to people’s feelings, which, he said rather tartly when Richard laughed, “had to be considered,” and read out “how, therefore, we are of opinion that the times are ripe . . . the superfluous youth of our ever-increasing population . . . what we owe to the dead . . .” which Richard thought all stuffing and bunkum, but no harm in it, of course, and Hugh went on drafting sentiments in alphabetical order of the highest nobility, brushing the cigar ash from his waistcoat, and summing up now and then the progress they had made until, finally, he read out the draft of a letter which Lady Bruton felt certain was a masterpiece. Could her own meaning sound like that?

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg.

At first glance, this writing might seem overly written. Certainly, there are redundancies and repetitions that don’t seem to clarify or emphasize anything in particular. And yet, if you should know anything about Woolf, you should know that she pioneered the use of stream-of-consciousness in fiction. In other words, this paragraph was written from the vantage point of the character, taking in every action and thought and relaying it precisely as it enters the character’s consciousness. There’s a deliberate lack of editing, because Woolf was trying to convey experience precisely as it occurred.

We wouldn’t call this passage “purple” even if it wasn’t stream-of-conscious. But, it is breaking rules with intent, using more words rather than fewer, and ornamenting itself with nearly-excess detail.

You don’t need to write stream-of-consciousness to break the rules, but you do need to break the rules intentionally. We’ll explore this more in a bit!

5. Use the thesaurus sparingly

Don’t reach for a thesaurus unless you know why you’re doing it. Lofty, obscure synonyms will not make you sound impressive; they will hurt your writing style.

Writers who use “pulchritudinous” instead of “beautiful” are merely flaunting their vocabulary. The use of the lofty word doesn’t add anything to your prose. Rather, it distracts the reader, because now they have to either Google a word they don’t know, or they find themselves distracted by a word that sticks out like a (very) sore thumb.

There might be times when you need to use a synonym because you don’t want to repeat the same word too many times. That’s fair, and demonstrates proper attention to style and to the reader. If you have to do this, don’t choose the words that are obscure or highbrow. Again, the point is to tell a story artfully, not to show off or seem scholarly. What matters much more are your characters, story arcs, and ideas: the substance of your work, not the ornamentation.

6. Read contemporary authors

What stylistic decisions do contemporary authors make? How do they convey certain ideas? What do people say when they celebrate the work or writing style of a well known writer?

Every contemporary author has their own unique voice. But, when you pay attention to the collection of contemporary writers, and compare them to writers 50, 100, 200 years ago, you’ll find certain commonalities in their writing.

The advice in this article is meant to steer you towards the stylistic conventions of 21st century authors. But, the advice won’t stick unless you see it in action. If you want to write for a contemporary audience, or even write towards a particular genre, head to your local bookstore or library, and pay attention to the books people are writing in your field. You don’t have to sound like them, but you should pay attention to what works and why.

For more on this, check out our guide on reading like a writer.

7. Find confidence as a writer

I think a commonality among all purple prose authors is a lack of confidence as a writer. To be clear: this is not a callout. Every writer questions their own talent and artistry. We’re creating worlds out of words and hoping that our readers will understand what we mean, even though we know something always gets lost in translation. Nerve wracking!

Some writers try to cover up this lack of confidence by employing purple prose strategies. If I sound smart, my reader will think I’m smart, and take my ideas and characters more seriously. It’s an understandable way of thinking.

But, readers don’t care how smart you are; they care how good the story is. Any attempt to play up the story, rather than simply tell the story, will be scrutinized by the reader. It is better to invest energy in telling a story well, writing and editing and workshopping and editing some more.

Writing is difficult work. It takes a lifetime to master. If you love words and telling stories, trust that your work will find its readership. You deserve to be taken seriously for your ideas, not your vocabulary.

For more, check out our guide on finding confidence as a writer.

How to Write Purple Prose (Responsibly)

Throughout this article, we’ve explained the pitfalls of purple prose syndrome, and why writers should avoid employing highfalutin language. But, are there instances where purple prose is useful? If so, how do you write it responsibly?

First, some possible reasons to write purple prose:

  • You are writing a period piece, set somewhere like the Victorian Era.
  • One of your characters is pretentious.
  • You are employing certain writing strategies, such as stream-of-consciousness or Realism, with a distinct and relevant purpose to the work itself.
  • You are writing satire.
  • For whatever reason, you know that your intended audience will appreciate a lofty, ornate writing style.
  • You are breaking the rules with some other intention, and it will be clear to the reader why you are breaking these rules.

We might have missed a few reasons. Nonetheless, if you have a clear, artistic reason for writing in this style, here’s how to write purple prose:

Do the opposite of every piece of advice in this article.

Pull out your thesaurus. Sound like a capital-w “Writer.” Read a bunch of Victorian authors and emulate their style. Use complicated sentence structures: write with colons, semicolons, hypotaxis and syntaxis. Pay extreme attention to minute, irrelevant details, and spend several sentences relaying those details. Focus more on adjectives than on verbs. Fit 20, 50, 100 sentences into a single paragraph. Be flowery. Be ornate. Don’t tell me she had brown eyes; tell me her eyes were fertile loam fit for Cain’s burial ground, fit for the tree around which Satan, that old wiry bastard, would wind himself and whisper sin into Eve’s dewy, virginal ear.

Follow these rules, and your prose will be so purple, you’ll eat it out of the icebox.

Master Your Non-Purple Prose Style at Writers.com

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Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Milk Press,8Poems, The Poetry Annals, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.


  1. Avi Sharma on January 4, 2023 at 10:42 pm

    I didn’t know I would find an article of this sort helpful to understand my pitfalls and shortcomings as a writer.
    Or should I say; the usage of words and art and the combination combined like the flower with its tree shedding itself due to the storm of the ruthless, meandering and ominous ocean; the trade and the vibes; the class and the style; the places they take are extravagantly resplendent. I feel obliged beyond the expression of the highest sort to let my long, artery fingers loom over what someone might call, the gratitude of the highest accord. Allow me to exhibit the same.

  2. […] and they can visualise. Providing strong imagery requires use of multiple senses and well written (not overwritten mind you)  descriptions to act as a slow fade in for the reader. Allowing the reader to easily be able […]

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