Avoiding cliches and purple prose

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.

purple prose
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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.

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  1. Had to laugh at myself over something similar. For one story, an editor told me she felt “rainbow-ized” in the first few paragraphs. Totally baffled me — I only saw two colors (blue and green) mentioned.
    It had to do with our separate backgrounds. Mine includes many years as a machinist, so when I wrote copper, silver, gold, bronze, I was talking about actual metals, not colors. The editor wanted me to see it for myself, but she finally had to tell me. I felt really dense when she pointed it out.

  2. Oh, that’s not fair. You can’t write about bronze and copper without using the words. Don’t feel dense—lots of words have double meanings.

  3. Glynda Francis says:

    LOL I’m usually fine with picking up on double (or triple, quadruple) meanings, but I was totally locked on my sentences referring to metals.
    We all have our brain farts–just gotta chuckle and learn from them. 🙂

  4. […] beyond itself for a high, lofty feel the author can’t sustain. This usually comes across as inconsistent, stilted, full of purple prose, or even unnatural. Your job as a critique partner is not rewriting to “improve” the voice. […]

  5. […] Stick with your natural tone and you are far more likely to succeed. For more on what purple prose is and when it might actually work, see my Elements of Fiction article “Avoiding cliches and purple prose.” […]

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