“Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome

And we’re back. Hopefully everyone had a good weekend! Let’s start this week with a quick pop quiz:

Q: What is wrong with this sentence?

The golden sun rose as a burning orb from the emerald green that carpeted the horizon into the azure blue sky.”

A: Well, perhaps there are a couple of things wrong, but the main one I’d hope people caught is the purple prose.

Again, like much of what I talk about on this blog, purple prose is a term that’s relatively well known in the writing community, but for those who don’t know, I believe this man (calling himself Bob Dole interestingly…) might have put it best, “I’d say that purple prose is a passage that is so needlessly ornate and wordy that it takes away from the meaning of the passage.

I think anyone who’s read enough has probably come across at least one example of purple prose. The sun can’t rise, it’s a golden orb lifting magnificently. A woman can’t have red hair, she has hair the color of a burning ember that flows like torrents over her shoulders.

Now, of course, we’re writers, we want to describe things vividly. After all, it’s a good thing to help readers see what we’re seeing while writing. But as our good friend Bob says, “The more wordy the passage gets, the harder it is to get the point across.” And that’s always a bad thing. I might be old fashioned, but isn’t part of being a good writer, I don’t know, writing things that people understand? Sometimes you can get away with borderline purple prose, but more often than not, it just obscures what you’re talking about in the first place.

Think about it, if the sun is a golden orb, rather than “the sun” and your main character’s eyes are “emerald orbs” rather than green eyes (people writing purple prose have an odd attachment to the word “orb” for some reason I find more than often) all of a sudden, the readers is having to work to keep track of what orbs are floating where and what they’re supposed to represent.

“But don’t we want the reader to think about our story?” someone may be asking. The keyword there is “story”. Having a reader engage with your story, having them want to read more, is a good thing. Having a reader confused with what you’re saying is the exact opposite. No one wants to be focusing on trying to understand the wording when they should be focusing on the characters and plot. And, truly, which is easier for you to understand/picture? Her green eyes, or her emerald orbs? At least for me, the first I’m picturing, well, green eyes, and the second I’m picturing her holding glass balls that are dark green. It doesn’t make for a powerful image. It makes for an overly poetic, confusing one.

Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, but having just read a book for review where my main complaint is that the language takes away from an otherwise touching story, I feel completely safe in saying that purple prose not only obscures what the author is trying to say, but it makes it look like they really don’t know what they’re doing.

And thus, that is why I almost always personally refer to purple prose as “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. Though this is one thing I never had a problem with in my early writing (unlike all the other problems I’ve more than willing to admit to) it seems far too often that people who have just started writing feel the need to prove they’re a real writer, and so what do they do? Prove that they are amazing wordsmiths of course. Anyone can write about someone’s green eyes, real writers obviously can embellish to the point where the person reading will weep picturing the detailed world they have created. That’s how they prove they’re a real writer. Right?

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know exactly how I feel about this idea that there are “real” writers and, I don’t know, fake writers(?) but purple prose nearly always seems like an extension of that idea, at least to me. You might be new to writing, but you are a “real” writer, dagnabit, and a good, nay, great one at that. Look how skillfully you craft descriptive words. All those fake writers out there can’t do that.

I don’t know first hand, but I imagine that that isn’t even a conscious thought. You aren’t sitting at your computer or there with a pen thinking, “I’ll show them all. I’m a writer!” but from what I’ve seen, that is the motivation for “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome. And that’s why it has the exact opposite effect. It doesn’t make you look like a good (or “real” writer) it makes you look like someone who has no idea what they’re doing trying too hard. If you look at the definition of “prose” (courtesy of Wikipedia), “Prose is the most typical form of language, applying ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).”

What I want to focus on there is “natural flow of speech.” I don’t know about anyone else out there, but I have never heard any of my friends refer to eyes as X orbs (X=chocolate, emerald, cerulean, lilac, etc.) I’ve never heard someone talk about the golden orb rising into an azure sky.

Of course, as writers we have some leeway when it comes to discriptive language, I’m not saying to be bland with your writing either, but still, being a good writer isn’t about obscuring your story with flamboyant prose. It’s about making the normal interesting. A good writer is someone who can maintain a rhythm in their writing that not only reads well, but is completely natural. A good writer can produce beautiful, beautiful prose to the point where casual readers don’t even notice how good it really is.

And so, please, new or established writers, resist the urge try to prove something with your writing and don’t throw so many frills on your prose that it’s hard to even keep straight what you’re talking about. It doesn’t make you look like a good writer, it makes you look like a bad writer who’s trying too hard.

Especially if you’re sending me a book to review, because I will call you out on it.

10 thoughts on ““Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome

  1. Katya says:

    Wow, you obviously feel very strongly about this.. I could tell, because even though the post is kind of long for a blog, it was interesting to read. Great job!

    also.. you need a ‘subscribe’ button 🙂

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Thanks Katya. All my blogs seem to be about the same length, for some reason. Not quite sure why.

      If you have a wordpress account I do have a “Follow” Button (I think it also works if you’re signed into blogspot, but I’m not entirely sure). Or you can just follow my Twitter. I always post updates when I’ve put up a new blog.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Alex Gaines (@AlexAboard) says:

    Loved this, although I often feel I am going too far the other way. What’s the opposite of purple prose? Prosaic prose?

    I’ll shortly be entering the editing phase of my first novel, so I guess we’ll see just how flowery the wording really is.

    Will definitely remove any reference to orbs though…

  3. Jasper says:

    You are a slightly misguided, although you are right about the beginning purple prose sentence. I would have written as so (because there’s redundancies, which, if you constructed it, looks biased):

    “The burning orb rose from the emerald that carpeted the horizon into the azure sky.”

    And god forbid, trying to use the thing between ears to actually decipher and comprehend a higher form of writing. I would rather read Kant than Aristotle; I’d rather read Nabokov than Hemingway; I’d rather read Fitzgerald, who I do not like except for his writing, than Rowling. And do I get annoyed with “purple prose”? Yeah. I get annoyed reading Kant and have to reread him, but I still enjoy the thought of conquering one of his behemothic sentence.

    Ornateness is not necessarily a bad thing. If used improperly, which purple prose is the result, yes. Complexity in writing is what writers need to strive for. The kind of mentality for which you stand is exactly what is numbing the comprehensive abilities of human society. Plain isn’t better; I don’t want to read something easy; I don’t get anything from that; my mind loses its focus of the description because it is barely there. Puritan style is far more detrimental to society than purple prose.

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