The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist packs in several problems we see in novice writers’ voices:
☐ The author avoids flowery or “purple” prose, as well as cliches, recycled phrases, and unnecessarily repeated words.
Now, there are some words you need to repeat or you’ll sound nutty. I remember once a critique partner pointed out that I had used the word “door” three times within a half-page. But he had to admit, there wasn’t really a good substitute. To use thesaurus words like portal or aperture would just be silly. But don’t repeat the word if you can get away without it. For example: He opened the door. She walked through the door.
Instead you could put: He opened the door, and she walked through.
Recycled phrases are the individual verbal tics we have. If they’re very clever, they can become catchphrases, like the “X points for Gryffindor” line that recurs throughout the Harry Potter series. But when they’re not clever, they just get annoying, like the teacher who says “you see what I mean?” every two minutes. We all have them. One of mine is “just a bit.” Don’t stress over them when you’re writing, but editing is the time to replace them with variations. Or take them out.
Cliches are phrases that are recycled at a cultural level. Garner’s Modern American Usage cites a bunch to watch for. Here’s a representative sample:
- At the end of the day
- Conspicuous by its absence
- Moment of truth
- Throw the baby out with the bathwater
In conversation, these can have their place, but in professional writing, especially fiction writing, we should strive to express things in ways that are unique to our writing voice. If you’ve used a phrase because you’ve heard other people use it, chances are it’s a good candidate for rewriting.
Identifying Purple Prose
Purple prose is distinct from eloquence or literary fiction. Extravagant, even florid, sentences can have a place if they are done well. Paul West, writing in the New York Times, cites some great examples of what he calls purple prose done well. His article is good, but in my estimation, purple prose is not only “verbal ostentation,” as he puts it, but is by definition a poorly executed attempt at literary eloquence.
Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity. So long as originality and lexical precision prevail, the sentient writer has a right to immerse himself or herself in phenomena and come up with as personal a version as can be. A writer who can’t do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks.—Paul West
Eloquence and literary flair have their place, but they must genuinely come from within you. Verbal ostentation can’t be a mask you don so people will see you as a “real writer.” Such attempts backfire. Your voice must be authentic.
The problem with dressing up your prose with flowery writing you’re not accustomed to is that you won’t be able to keep it up. Eventually, your true self will come out. And you know what? That’s usually for the best. More on finding your natural voice next time. For now, remember that the most important point about voice is this one:
☐ The voice is consistent.