Elements of Style describes purple prose as "hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating." In short, it's ornate, contrived and breaks the narrative.

There's plenty of advice on how to avoid it, but my question is geared towards how one can identify it.

Since writing is so subjective, what can seem like purple prose to one person can be seen as something vivid and beautiful to someone else.

Where is the line between the two? Can it even be determined? And if how?


One of the characteristics of the kind of prose you are referring to is a very dull and dry approach, there is often quite unnecessary pompous savant words and an obtuse language, there is also a general miasma of boredomness and triteness, a sure way to spot the culprits in an entirely wholesome and objective way is the length of the sentences used which are so long as to preclude any easy understanding or even remembrance of the start of the sentence, there is no tail or heads to the beast anymore, if you want an actual illustrative example go read the works of Immanuel Kant the German philosopher.

The other type of prose is clear and visual, it ensnares you into its fold until the language used disappears and you are living in the story.


Sometimes purple prose is an attempt to impress the reader with how smart the author is.

I work in the software business and I have to do a fair amount of technical writing. And I've very routinely found that if I write something that is simple, clear, and direct, someone else in the company will edit it to make it less easy to read. I recall one time that I wrote the first draft of a user manual for a software product, and the editor at corporate headquarters apparently did a search-and-replace in MS Word to change every occurrence of "use" to "utilize" and dozens of other such changes. Editors regularly tell me that they need to make such changes to my writing to make it "sound more professional". Because heaven forbid if someone could understand it.

It's lead me to conclude that there are two kinds of writers in the world: (a) Those who want to convey an idea or a story to the reader; and (b) Those who want to impress the reader with how smart the author must be to understand this complicated subject or to know all these big hard words.

Other times, purple prose is an attempt to be profound.

I think trying to be profound is inherently risky. If you try to write a story that is action-packed and fail, you could still end up with a story that is somewhat action-packed. Or if you try to write a story that is romantic and fail, you may still end up with a story that is somewhat romantic. But if you try to write a story that is profound and fail, you rarely end up with a story that is "somewhat profound". You usually end up with something that is pretentious and lame.

  • I had a strong urge to downvote your "utilize" editor! – April Feb 28 at 13:51

It seems to me that there is only way you can create "purple prose". The term itself seems less like an actual definition then words a pundit invented to describe something he recommends for or against. In this case, he is simply recommending that you avoid a certain type of prose that reads as boring. Is my interpretation at least.

edit: to answer your question, I would define purple prose as word that are superfluous without actually being informative in any capacity.

There are many,many ways to bore a reader when you are typing. As you were quick to point out, it can be pretty subjective. Thus its best to always read you own work aloud when your done, and measure the levels of these elements that are certain to degrade the engagement of your work...

1) Technicality. If you are not writing an academic paper or instructions for a technical guide, try to avoid trite technicalities altogether. Act more like your taking to a friend or telling a story to a child then reading a file from your office desk.

2) Expository. The great thing about writing is that the reader's imagination is doing half of the work for us. Thus, you should only concern yourself with explaining a few of the most important details rather then everything there is to know. This is especially true for writing fiction.

3) Repetition. Make damn sure you don't repeat the use of words over and over again. Be sure to always double check your work and have a Thesaurus handy if necessary.

4) Stagnation. Don't be afraid to spice things up; a single sentence with a beautiful metaphor or simile will tell more to your audience then ten paragraphs of technical exposition. Remember that.

5) Pretention. On the other side of the rainbow, keep in mind that the whole point of writing anything is to inform the reader. The creativity is in how you inform them, not in the number of superfluous sayings you can cram into a single sentence. Do not sacrifice substance for style.

Always remember; when in doubt, read it out loud to yourself or to someone else. That's the best way to spot potential flaws. Thank you, and I hope that helps.

  • Welcome to Writers. Stack Exchange sites work a little differently that traditional discussion forums; answers need to directly answer the question, not discuss the issues raised. This answer is a nice essay on how to write well, but it doesn't directly answer the question, which is asking how to tell the difference between "purple prose" and descriptive writing. – Neil Fein Nov 10 '14 at 23:11
  • What if I simply said that it is writing that says a lot without actually describing anything or informing the reader? – TIm Ryan Scully Nov 11 '14 at 17:00
  • I agree, that'd be an improvement. – Neil Fein Nov 11 '14 at 17:15

There is no such thing as "vividly descriptive writing". There is, of course, "incredibly annoying amateur writing with lots of extraneous adjectives strung together".

When I read amateur manuscripts it is invariably a face palm. What I need to do is write software that can automatically recognize, target and delete adjectives. That would be very useful.

Here's a tip: go through your dictionary with an El Marko and black out every adjective. It may take a long time to do this, but it will probably quadruple your chances of getting published, so it's worth it.

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