Does Your Writing Suffer from
Purple Overload?

image of purple sunset

Let’s face it — choosing just the right word can be a lot of fun. Most writers like to play with language, and choosing the perfect word makes you feel like a master chef selecting the perfect spice.

But words, like spices, can be overused. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with the enemy of writing that communicates and persuades. You’ll cross over into that dread zone — “purple prose.”

So what’s purple prose?

It’s those needlessly flowery sections of writing that are so detailed they draw the reader’s attention away from what you really want to say. It’s like you slathered the creativity on a little too thick. One classic example is this opening line:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

You probably know that line better as the often-quoted “It was a dark and stormy night,” and it actually inspired a well-known contest for badly-written first sentences.

When your writing is this wordy, you end up confusing and boring your readers. Here’s how to lighten up those purple patches without leaving your writing bland and uninspiring.

Great writing does not equal flowery writing

Somewhere in our education, many of us had well-meaning teachers who wanted to nurture our creativity and get us to be more expressive. Unfortunately, that’s often when all kinds of purple patches started to creep up like weeds in our writing.

On the web, and more recently on mobile devices, people demand brevity. There’s even the whole “txting” language that fits words into less space. (But dnt write blog psts like ths pls.)

When you write, read over every sentence to make sure it “earns its place” in your post or article. As Michelle Russell put it last year, write with a knife. The first few times you do this, you’ll probably find yourself cutting large chunks of fluff. The more you work at it, you may find that your drafts get less “fluffy.”

Crunch up your sentences

Web and mobile readers are impatient. To cater to this fast-paced, demanding audience, you’ll want to ask yourself if you can “crunch up” your sentences into more digestible chunks.

Ask a friend or colleague to read your post aloud to you. (This can work especially well when they don’t know your topic.)

If they find themselves pausing for a breath (or even gasping for air) after reading a word or sentence, strike it out. Try to chunk the sentence down into something more manageable.

Don’t ramble

There’s nothing worse than a post that starts like this:

I’ve discovered the secret of life and exactly what we were put here on earth to do. It is a startling revelation that is guaranteed to change everything about the way we live. But first, let me tell you a little about myself . . .

Your readers want to get straight to the point. No shortcuts, no detours, no rambling.

If your revelation is as amazing as you say it is, they’ll certainly want to learn more about you — after you’ve fulfilled the promise made in your introduction.

Purple’s a great color for butterflies, sunsets, or fancy throw pillows, but not for your writing. Keeping these points in mind will not only help make your writing tighter, clearer, and more persuasive, but they’ll also hone your skills to serve a readership that demands “instant gratification” with their content.

About the Author: Sherice Jacob is an author, copywriter and web designer. For more writing insights, follow @sherice on Twitter.

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  1. Hey Sherice,

    Great tips for catchier and high-impact writing.

    Get to the point, include only the essential, turn 2 good sentences into 1 great one.

    Regarding flowery writing, one technique that’s helped me cut the poetic fluff is to write how I talk. If I won’t say some awkward phrase (“it was a dark and stormy night”), I won’t write it.

    Like you mentioned, reading back is a simple way to check. If something sounds awkward when read aloud, edit the sucker out.

    People want you to talk TO them, not AT them. Why should writing (even fiction) be any different?

    Simple and useful tips here, and I dig the “purple overload” term.

    Oleg

  2. Brevity and clarity are the new “black” in copywriting. People simply don’t have time to meander in rambling. Great tips.

  3. Sherice – I like your analogy about spices and cooking. I’m the official cook in my house, and I’ve found that the dishes my family absolutely loves are the ones that have few and simple ingredients. Adding more herbs and spices to your tomato sauce won’t necessarily make for a better pomodoro. Less is more. Both in writing and in the kitchen.

  4. Hi Sherice,

    One of the most challenging parts of writing for the web: being succinct. Myself included, readers want content now. But my tip is to always be your best AND worst critic!

  5. Sherice,

    Your point is well made and so true. I’m having a devil of a time getting my blogging off the ground because I’m so used to painting a picture with a lot of detail. Thankfully, I’m learning that in the blogging world, you have to paint the same picture without using so much paint. Thanks for the words of advice.

  6. I completely agree. I often just leave the page when someone can’t be brief enough, although I am myself not known for extreme brevity, but that’s another story ;)

    I’ve discovered that the more I write, the more I slice. Writing with a knife is fun, because it’s almost like you can pack more power into a smaller package that will explode when your readers devour it.

  7. It’s pretty much true. I have come across materials with simple-written English but yet they have strong voices in the deliveries. I’m still striving to improve though and perhaps I should look out for overused words or anything of that sort. Useful post.

    Thanks and cheers!

  8. This is one of the few ways I think Twitter is actually helpful – it makes people focus their writing. In fact, 140 characters is sometimes too much! ;)

  9. Great reminders Sherice! I’m someone that can tend to ramble in my posts so it’s a great thing to keep in the back of my head at times. And with more and more people accessing the web via smart phones and cell phones, it’s definitely not a bad idea to crunch it up and remove what’s not absolutely necessary.

  10. Hi Sherice,

    This is both the area I have improved in the most, and the one where I still have to grow. My writing used to be deep violet, now it’s a dusty lavender. : )

    Happy New Year, Sherice!

  11. Great information Sherice! I am the most “flowery” writer I know. I’ve been told I’m way to wordy.

    In proofing my blog posts before publishing, I spend more time taking out “unnecessary” fluff than checking for grammatical errors.

    I’m definitely (see…didn’t need that word…lol) making some head way.

  12. Sherice,
    Great insight into writing. Will use on my blog.
    One thought – Purple is a beautiful color if you are goldfish. Stand out from the crowd by giving a ‘little signature something extra’.
    Best,
    Stan
    #PurpleGoldfishProject

  13. Nicely put. I thought for many years that was the way to write. Descriptive. Blogging helped me to tone it down. I look up words for definitions and synonyms to make sure I understand them correctly.

    ABC’s of writing: Accurate, Brief and Concise! That’s my goal

  14. Thanks Sherice! How many times do people need to be told to write concisely before they start?

  15. Great tips for beginner like me . I am sure many would enjoy this post .

  16. Hi Sherice, good post. I was taught to keep sentences short but sometimes it can be hard to do without sounding robotic. I like the notion of ‘writing with a knife’ though!

  17. Oh, do I deal with this every time that I sit down and do a rough draft. One great benefit is that cutting out the flowery fluff can considerably reduce the size of a post on our blog.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Sherice.

  18. Many, many years ago, I was in a great writer’s group with a woman who talked about “embroidering” a story–I’ve always remembered that as she basically meant: don’t keep adding pretty words for their own sake. To make the editing less painful, I sometimes turn it into a game–how quickly can I cut the length of this letter down by half–which tends to help me find the middle ground between embroidered for embroidery’s sake and as Tracey mentions, sounding robotic. Thanks for the great food for thought this morning, Sherice!

  19. Unless a blog is about poetry or something,or the words of the post should keep in simple.

  20. “Throw pillows” are the perfect metaphor. Fine to use shmancy words as accents. You just don’t want to paint the whole paragraph with them.

  21. @jules the ABC’s- very nice.

    Thanks for the post, sherice. Flowery writing is a tough nut for some, especially beginners.

    As Dr. Seuss would have put it…

    The best thing to do
    is cut, cut, cut, Cut, CUT!
    Get rid of the purple
    No if, and, or BUT!

  22. A clear, simple writing style also fits a wider range of reading levels. We can’t automatically assume that everyone reads equally well.

    Isaac Asimov cultivated this kind of style just so he could write faster (he wrote hundreds of books). As a result, his popularity exploded because so may younger readers discovered his work in their school libraries.

  23. This comment box illustrates where a journey to conciseness might lead.

    Imagine a Web 2.0 based sales site whose focus is to stimulate and encourage a conversation amongst the visitors. The seller enters the conversation only to say nice things to and about the visitors, and to answer questions with factual information.

    In any conversation, the path to popularity is to do more listening than talking. Less is more.

    It’s amazing how simple the concept is, how effective listening really is in building trust and winning people over, and how challenging it can be to actually do.

  24. Thanks for posting this! I just addressed a similar concept in a guest blog post last week – New Year’s Resolution: Banish Marketing-Speak – http://bit.ly/5aZDNq.

    When I’m discussing this concept with friends, I like to use the example of Shakespeare. Great writer? Absolutely, but he wouldn’t last a week in most modern communications jobs because of his inability to express a point clearly and succinctly.

  25. I have always remembered one of my writing professors telling us that we must let go of our “darlings:” those genius phrases (or, more likely, run-on descriptions) that we try to force into our writing at any cost. It’s hard, but always worthwhile.

  26. And I agree with your advices, but I wanted to add read Ogilvi Д there all is short-story clearly

  27. @bencurnett – Well put!

    Great post Sherice! I will admit that my writing has taken on a definite purple hue as of late, this was the reminder I needed. Keep up the great work.

  28. I finally have the last laugh on my Grade 8 English teacher, who grudgingly told me my answers were, “brief, but to the point.” I could never figure out why that was a bad thing.

    Over-embellished writing often comes off as self-conscious. It’s awfully hard to be elegant and concise when you’re tripping over your own feet.

    Nicely done, Sherice. Now I have to go gaze admiringly at my taupe throw cushions.

  29. Hi Sherice,

    Thanks for sharing.

    My favorite new anti-fluff razor is Twitter. You simply can’t “expound” in 140 characters. So you learn brevity.

    In a way, Twitter is kind of an ongoing word game. Which words pack the most meaning into the tightest space? Which words are nuance-dense neutron stars and which are vague, gassy Red Giants?

    I’m convinced my blurb-writing and billboard-crafting capabilities have skyrocketed since I started microblogging.

    @KathleenHanover on Twitter

  30. And my husband would argue that purple is not a good color for anything…

    Honestly though, very good reminder to keep it short and sweet. Lucky for me, I hated writing. When told I didn’t have enough descriptive or sentence structure variety I wanted to throw myself on the floor and give up.

    I’m glad I didn’t. Now I can write the way I like, and I don’t have to worry about the color purple.

  31. Short and sweet is best.

  32. @Veronica Brown,

    In defense of the Bard, I challenge anyone to come up with six more meaningful syllables than “To be or not to be.” ;)

    Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line), which of course influenced his word choice.

    And actually, we can thank him for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new coinages, fresh-minted to tot up his iambs. “Flowery,” “radiance” and “puppy-dog” being among of them.

    Here’s a cool list: http://www.pathguy.com/shakeswo.htm

    Methinks you’ll be shocked at how many you recognize.

    @KathleenHanover on Twitter

  33. @Veronica, like Kathleen, I think Shakespeare did an astonishing job expressing himself clearly & concisely. It doesn’t always feel like it today, but that’s just the 400 years between his time and ours. If he was around today I think he’d be a hell of a copywriter. :)

  34. All true. We, English-speakers have the language with the most extensive vocabulary in the world. Its richness just keeps on growing as it evolves along with us. We have so much choice that an idea can be expressed more succinctly in English than in most other languages. Just take a look at foreign subtitles, for example.

    However, it is also a question of register as mentioned in the posts above. One for poetry, one for copywriting or one for whatever other note you wish to strike. We don’t want to read text-speak all the time any more than we want to read purple prose.

    I think wordprocessors and email have also made us rabbit more. It’s just too easy and too cheap. Writing by hand and the telegrams of yesteryear made one more economical with words.

    It’s also interesting to note the change in fiction writing now that everyone’s view of the world is so much wider. Multi-page descriptive passages to set the scene are no longer necessary and dialogue is now short and snappy.

  35. The best technique I know is to throw words away.

    Throw them away permanently.

    Not copy and paste them to a scrap file. Just delete. Saves getting emotionally attached to the wrong writing. A deadly sin for writers if ever there was one.

  36. Funny, Dave, because for me it’s easier to cut if I tell myself I’m saving it for later. I almost never go back to it (sometimes I do, sometimes it’s just a question of too many topics for one piece), but preserving that fiction of saving the words lets me be freer with that “editing knife.”

  37. @Stacey, my 5-page papers were always 3 1/2 pages long!

  38. Say it. Then shut up. Great advice. Will revisit a couple of soon-to-publish blog posts with this in mind.

    Also, this is good advice for professional speakers, too!

  39. Great post, being simple and direct is key in copywriting. People are exposed to so much the last thing they want to do is read the unnecessary.

    @Lain – I never thought of twitter as a tool to focus writing, interesting.

  40. Great point. I find it impossible to read just about any CD review in Rolling Stone for this very reason. It can often come across as very self absorbed on the writers part.

  41. Thank you for the great and insightful comments! I like Dave’s idea of just deleting, but I find myself hanging on to snippets for future use (guilty, I know!)

    The same issue of purple prose comes up in movies too – especially when they’ve been adapted from a book. Don’t you have a certain image of the way a character or a scene looks, and when you see the movie, you think “that director got it all wrong!” Putting in TOO much description and leaving too little to the imagination are why most books get rated better than their movie counterparts.

  42. Simplicity. Whatever you want to say, say it quickly. Most people are impatient. You might have 2 minutes to make an impression. Get to the point.

  43. Thanks for the insight. Thinking about the psychological aspects of readers is very important when writing content.

    They say your words must be simple, 8th grade English and clearly address what your point is.

    Another Great High Quality Article from Copyblogger. Thats why I always keep track with this site.

  44. As an editorial assistant in the early 90′s I was encouraged to interview a band for one of our magazines – my first published work. After I turned in my assignment my editor came by my desk and said, “it’s almost perfect.” She then handed it back to me with more than half the words crossed out as unnecessary.

    It was a lesson I never forgot.

    On another note, too bad the author of the “Twilight” series didn’t read this post before she got busy.

  45. Haha Deb, ‘Twilight’ was exactly what I was thinking of as I read this post :-) Someone really needed to remove the Shift+f7 keys from her keyboard.

  46. Hi Sherice,

    I like your examples of purple writing overkill and rambling.

    It’s good to write to the point and not to bore your readers.

    But I think that sometimes it can lead to the oposite extreme if people overdo it.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to read posts in twitter style.

    Using a tiny bit of flowery language is a spice that is needed in order to paint a picture.

    I believe that balance is the key in writing and too much or too little of anything kills it.

    Somehow I think that’s exactly what you meant.

    Vance

  47. I usually end up rambling, but I do read back through and cut some things. After reading this blog, however, I think I’ll be cutting and slashing more! Thanks :)

  48. Write thinking of how you would give a command to a small child or the dog. Purple begins to sound like the librarian in Charlie Brown to the reader.

    Which could be connected to a comment I overheard this morning. “I never read blog posts.” Maybe he’s never seen one worth starting to read. Or he expects that.

  49. When it comes to copywriting KISSing always seems to work the most :)

  50. Yes from now on I’ll dumb down my word choice and not use my style for the fear that it’ll alienate my readers…

    Uh, what? I’m no copywriter, but I’m a blogger – and I view blogging as a form of self-expression. I can write in whatever style I please – and if it turns away visitors, I don’t really want them to begin with.

    P.S. This post is meant for people who actually write purple passages on purpose. If you’re *trying* to be creative, you’re probably going to pen some purple prose. On the other hand, if you just write in your own style, things will be OK.

    Write with a razor, but don’t cut your voice out and sound generic. Have an identity.

  51. This is so true and why I will never write directly on my blog. 2 drafts are needed for me to get rid off all the purple.
    Nice post.

  52. Hi Brett,

    Being yourself and having your own voice doesn’t equal writing purple prose. OTOH, if you have to think too hard to come up with the “perfect” word, the post is probably turning purple :)

  53. Well said! I loved this sentence “Purple’s a great color for butterflies, sunsets, or fancy throw pillows, but not for your writing. “

  54. @Brett, that’s the eternal tension, I think. Self expression vs. the needs of the reader.

    If you are writing to persuade, to build a business, and/or to motivate action (which is the topic of this blog), I think you need to lean toward the needs of the reader. Does that mean you become a bland robot spitting out wikipedia entries? Of course not.

    I love self-expression and I think it’s a marvelous way to build a business. But if I’m boring or confusing my readers, my self-expression has become self indulgence.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

  55. I really appreciate this post. I have problems rambling in my writing sometimes where I will write an unnecessarily wordy sentence, using commas, semicolons, hyphens and soforth, when, in actuality, it is not completely necessary as you have so cleverly stated in your punctuated piece of writing above, which I am so enchanted with that I decided to comment to my hearts content in the space with you have aptly provided for me to do so, all-be-it in a non-punctuated manner so that I can fully express to you that which I am thinking using words of the English language that may come acrossed as long-winded to the untrained eyes and ears of those who can’t read good ; )

  56. Love the title of this post! I have to admit that it drew me in quite effectively.

    I have to disagree in part with the part on rambling. While aimless writing is never good, sometimes the feeling of rambling or digression is very effective for creating rapport with your readers. Similarly, getting right to the point can feel too abrupt and turn people away – especially if you haven’t yet convinced them that the point of your writing is important to them.

  57. @Dave, Sonia and Sherice –

    I’ve been saving my sentence snippets for over a year now, though I admit I NEVER return. I think there’s an emotional attachment there that allows me to cut because I know it’s there “just in case.” Ridiculous really, considering our well will never run dry.

  58. Like you say ‘crunch up your sentences’, makes sense, in fact it makes me think that that’s what we should do with our life when it becomes overwhelming – crunch it up into easily digestible bits and then it will be easier to cope with. Thanks

  59. A trick I learned in the newspaper business is to set a word limit. There is theoretically endless space online. But pretend there isn’t. Keep it to 300 words. You’ll be surprised how lean your writing becomes. It’s easy to say but hard to do…including for me.

  60. I like to measure writing against whether it makes me work too hard — and whether one sentence makes me want to read the next.

  61. One of the most effective tips I know is simply to read out aloud what you’ve written. It forces you to read every word (rather than scan reading where your brain will jump over words).

    The main benefit of reading aloud is highlighting awkwardly phrased sentences, but it may also help highlight overly flowery sentences too — by hearing them out loud you may just twig how ridiculous they sound!

  62. I have to admit I’ve been guilty of rambling myself, sometimes it’s hard to keep your thoughts together espeicially when you’re trying to put as much valuable information in a short post as possible.It’s definitely an art trying to keep it short and sweet.

  63. all true!

  64. In high school I was always given a minimum word count or page length to meet. I was often frustrated by this because I could say in one page what my classmates took 3-5 pages to say.

    In college I had a professor who wouldn’t read a paper over one page. I loved it. It taught my classmates to cut out the fluff and get to the point.

  65. Reading this post was reading my blogging experience of last year, me using too many flowery words and sentences and leaving my readers completely bored and restless.

    I can especially relate to the section where you speak about ‘many of us had well-meaning teachers who wanted to nurture our creativity’….leading to purple patches. Again – me at 14 years old.

    The suggestions you’ve stated above to improve things are great – thank you so much.
    Brill post.

  66. Definitely a lot of people (including myself) are too wordy. I am a fiction writer at heart, and adjusting to the fact that web readers scan is a huge challenge for me. I think I’m doing a lot better at it, though.

  67. Great post Sherice!

    I really needed this today, I have had some struggles with my writings on my blog. I will take all these great tips in hand and transfer them to my writings. I had a look at your website as well, I like the content there too. So I’ll be stopping by there frequently. Oh well I love the title of your book, had a look at the table of contents and I like what I see.

    Jason

  68. Some great tips Sherice!

    I agree with @Lain, twitter has helped people to focus more on exactly what they want to say and helps to remove the fluff from their writing. I think Seth Godin is a great example of someone who gets straight to the point in his posts. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/

  69. Great reminders Sherice! I’m surprised, however, that neither you nor any readers mentioned the all-time classic style guide, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (now fifty years old, but all the more relevant in this age of character counts, mobile web browsing, and Twittified attention spans; I can think of no better resource for writers of any skill level). Rule 13 makes a case for brevity I’ll never forget:

    “Rule 13: Omit Needless Words

    Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

  70. It is always good to keep the language simple. All readers are not linguistics and everyone just hates to look into dictionary after sentence is finished.

    Nice Article