Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Overwritten Novel: How to Identify & Fix Purple Prose in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Be wary of going too far and turning a good sentence (or scene) into an overwritten mess. 

The term purple prose has been around as long as I've been writing, and chances are you've heard it too. You'll also hear folks say "the prose is too flowery" or it feels "overwritten." People know it when they see it, but how do you spot it in your own work? And more importantly--how do you fix it?

If you're unfamiliar with the term, purple or flowery prose is so filled with adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors, that it screams "Hey look! I'm fancy writing" and distracts you from the actual story. You often need a thesaurus just to read it.

Overwritten text is trying too hard, either trying hard to sound "written" or trying to explain too much. For example, one sentence that uses fifteen words when three is enough. Or explaining every single step in a task that doesn't need it. If you ever thought to yourself, "Yeah, I get it, he was angry, move on" then you probably read an overwritten passage.

(Here's more on Avoid Overwriting – Subtle is More Sophisticated)

Overwriting bloats a novel and usually kills the pacing and narrative drive, because the focus is on describing, not on the action. Even when what you're describing is action.

Let's look at a basic sentence you might find in any novel (warning--this zombie example does get a little, um, colorfully gruesome, but the end):
Bob swung the shotgun toward the zombie and blew its head off.
This sentence isn't fancy, but it does show readers what's going on. We know what Bob did in just a few words. Odds are we can easily imagine what this looked like and the steps Bob took to achieve this goal.

Now let's overwrite it:
Bob lifted the shotgun, the heavy stock smooth against his hand. He took aim, staring down the steel barrel at the zombie lumbering toward him.The sights aligned with the zombie's head--two dots and a target. He tensed and braced the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder. Holding his breath, he slowly pulled back against the trigger and fired. The shell whizzed through the air and into the zombie's forehead. Its skull exploded, gray brains bursting through the air and splattering on the wall.
Were you ready to shoot Bob by the end of that? Just shoot the dang thing already!

The danger of overwritten prose is that it can feel exciting because things are going on. On its own, you may have even liked this paragraph and are wondering why it's a problem.

If this is the only passage in the novel like this, it might not be a problem at all. If this is a climactic moment you want to fully describe, it might be fine.

But imagine pages and pages of this level of descriptive detail. 

Aside from dragging the pacing down, it's just too much. Readers don't need to know every little aspect of how Bob shot a zombie--especially if he's been shooting zombies all book.

Of course, there is a happy medium somewhere between the two, so if example one was too sparse for your taste, and example two was too much, you could cut this paragraph in half and see what happens:
Bob lifted the heavy shotgun and took aim, staring down the steel barrel at the zombie lumbering toward him. Sights aligned with the zombie's head and he fired. The shell whizzed through the air. Found its mark. Gray brains burst from the skull, splattering on the wall.
This might still be a bit much for many readers, but it does give a more colorful sense of what's going on.

(Here's more on Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

Anything Can Be Overwritten 

Don't think overwriting is just for long passages. You can overwrite a single sentence:
Holding his breath, he slowly pulled back against the rough edge of the trigger and fired.
Plenty of unnecessary words here, and this is the type of overwriting that will trip most writers up, because it doesn't feel overwritten. We don't need slowly, back against, or the rough edge. We can even cut trigger.
Holding his breath, he pulled the trigger and fired.

Holding his breath, he fired.

He held his breath and fired.
Depending on your style, you could even cut this down to three words:
Exhale. Aim. Fire.
That's a long way from the sixteen original words that said essentially the same thing.

(Here's more on Painting With Prose)

The Difference Between Overwritten and Purple Prose

While overwriting uses too many words to say the same thing, purple prose turns every passage into a word painting. It loves it's imagery, it hovers in the moment, and goes overboard with description.

Let's take that "shot the zombie" situation and really color it purple:
Bob elevated the shotgun, the ample stock smooth against his calloused hand. He took aim, gazing down the cobalt-gray steel barrel at the zombie lumbering toward him. The sights aligned with the zombie's cranium--two spheres, a pair of red-rimmed eyes, shining in the incandescent light of the room. He tensed and planted the butt of the shotgun soundly against his shoulder. Breath ceased, a brief moment of calm before the inevitable cacophony the shotgun would surely emit. Slowly, like a leaf drifting on a summer breeze, he drew back against the hair-trigger and released the shell. The shell sailed through the air and submerged deep the zombie's forehead. It's skull ruptured, mushrooming into a firework display of silvery brains bursting through the air.


This is an exaggerated passage of course, but at some point, every new writer has written something equally bad (I know I have). Just like the overwritten example, purple prose doesn't have to be a full paragraph. 
Breath ceased, a brief moment of calm before the inevitable cacophony the shotgun would surely emit.
This is still purple, even if the rest of the paragraph was fine. Purple is most often associated with prose that's trying to sound "literary," "written," or just uses too much imagery. 

Flowery language can happen anywhere. Even when it's not called for.

At this point I'm looking at my example and wondering how to show flowery prose with some guy blowing a zombie's head off, but I'm going to do it anyway, because you don't need sweetness and light to be flowery. This is probably funnier (and worse), because it's so not a passage that needs flowery language.
Bob lifted the shotgun, the heavy stock smooth against his hand like a powerful, wooden cannon. He took aim, staring down the glistening steel barrel at the zombie. Death lumbered, step by step, closing the distance as easily as it would steal his life. Bob aligned the sights with the zombie's rotting head, it's weepy red eyes as dead as the still air around them. He tensed and snuggled the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder, holding it tight. He exhaled, his life's breath hissing out of his lungs. Would it be his last breath? he wondered. Fingers slowly pulled back against the rough edge of the trigger and he fired, the blast reverberating off the mildewed walls and deafening him. The shell whizzed through the air fast as lightning and sank deep into the zombie's decayed forehead. It's skull exploded like bloody fireworks, gray brains dancing through the air and splattering on the wall in their own sad Rorschach pattern.
Wouldn't you rather face the zombie or read that paragraph again?  Even though this is a gruesome scene, it's trying hard to sound pretty. Imagery is overused and the focus in on what's being said, not what's happening.

Even though I personally love the head exploding like bloody fireworks, that's a flowery line for sure. Cutting this down and eliminating some of the flowers would improve it considerably:
Bob lifted the shotgun, the heavy stock smooth against his hand, and stared down the barrel at the zombie. Death lumbered, step by step, closing the distance as easily as it would steal his life. He fired. The shell whizzed through the air fast as lightning and sank deep into the zombie's decayed forehead. Bang! Bloody fireworks.
Still flowery, but at least this gets to the point faster and cuts down on the unnecessary description and imagery.

(Here's more on Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

Why We Overwrite in Our Novels

I think overwriting happens because we just get caught up in the scene and try to get every detail we imagine onto the page. We see it unfolding in our imaginations and we forget to self edit. For some writers, we're trying to emulate our favorite authors or books, even if the style isn't compatible with what we write.

Sometimes we're new and just don't know any better. We've read advice that says to show, not tell, or describe what we see in our minds, or flesh out a scene with details, yet no one really explained how we do all that.

Fixing Overwritten and Purple Prose

The one positive aspect of overwriting and purple prose, is that it's fixable. Words can be cut, can be sentences can be rewritten, and we can edit the purple right out of these suckers. Once the scene is out of our heads, we have a much better sense of what's needed and what can go.

If you're worried a paragraph or scene is overwritten, take each sentence one at a time and ask:
  • Do I need every single word? (If no, cut those words)
  • Can I tighten it? (If yes, do so)
Then, look at the entire paragraph and ask:
  • Do I need every sentence? (If no, cut them) 
  • And I repeating essentially the same thing? (If yes, cut or combine into one)
  • Am I describing every step in an action? (If yes, determine what steps are one readers won't assume)
  • Does each step need to be described? (If no, cut what isn't needed) 
If you're worried it's too purple or flowery, ask:
  • Does every noun have an adjective attached to it? (If yes, cut some of them)
  • Do I use several adjectives in a row? (If yes, cut some)
  • Are there multiple metaphors or similes? (If yes, cut back to one per paragraph or even page)
Be objective and consider what's best for the sentence, paragraph, and scene. This is about telling a story, not painting a word picture. There's a line between purple prose and beautifully written, and you won't know where yours is until until you cut out everything that falls over that line.

When it comes to overwritten purple prose, be ruthless and make liberal use of that delete key.

Have you ever written (or overwritten) a passage? Have you read anything that really needed a good pruning? 

**Originally published September 2010. Updated July 2019.

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great examples! Bloody fireworks...ewwww :)

  2. Has anyone told you lately you totally rock? Thank you sooooooo much for this post. I never understood this term when reading critiques in AW and now I totally, totally get it and yes, there were times reading some of those paras that I wish I was the zombie getting my head shot off :-) Great, great clarification. It all makes sense now.

  3. I think the narrator's voice may also play into this. I'm thinking of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. There are some mighty odd metaphors in there, starting with the opening line that compares dawn to cat vomit. (I read that book probably 2 years ago, and still remember that.) The bloody fireworks might suit your narrative voice for that particular book.

    I've always considered prose "purple" when it was overdone. A light salting of interesting turns of phrase can make a narrator memorable. Too much just tastes salty. And then enough salt for one person is too much for another, but the saltier something is (referring to my metaphor, here!), the fewer people will enjoy it.

    Then again, my mentality about this is likely colored by how I write and speak. My manager has laughed at me for using "endeavor" in a casual e-mail.

  4. Hi, new follower here with a question.

    I appreciate what you're saying and understand the purple but my question is -- in taking away the overwritten, don't you lose something of the 'voice'.

    Now I'm not one for blowing zombie's away at 10 in the morning but I liked what you did with the paragraphs. I liked the voice I heard as I read. If you had just used, "He aimed the rifle and fired." Yes, we have the action but it's just words, no voice.

    If the whole book was written like that it would probably be five sentences. There was a zombie and a cowboy. The zombie did bad things. The cowboy chased him down. He raised his gun and fired. The zombie died.

    I get what you're trying to say, but where is the line you stop being purple and start being a good writer?

    1. Well said! Helpful article...but I was having these same thoughts. Thank you!

  5. Just for future reference, a shell does not fly through the air. The round or the bullet does. The shell stays in the gun or is ejected out the side. A shell is the thing that carries the bullet and the gunpowder. Also, shotguns don't typical fire bullets (there is a thing called a slug that they do fire, but it's uncommon these days). Shotguns fire -- wait for it -- shot. A bunch of pellets or BB's if you will. It tears things up a lot and at short range, yeah, it's going to produce brain fireworks.

    Why yes, I have been called pedantic before -- why do you ask?

    1. oddly, I really appreciated your comment!

    2. Interesting details. Could be critical - depending on the storyline.

  6. These are great examples! Thanks for sharing this.

  7. LOL Eric. I actually wrote it first with bullets, then said "Wait, shotguns don't fire bullets" and changed it. Should have looked it up, but it was 8am.

    As for voice and style vs purple...

    You can have a flowery voice and not go overboard, and you certainly wouldn't want to edit out all the description. A book written as Piedmont Writer described would be just as bad as the examples I gave.

    Perhaps I should have had a "good" paragraph in there to show as an example and not just one line. I'm a sparse writer, but my whole story isn't short, uninteresting sentences. I use imagery same as everyone else. If I were writing a full "regular" paragraph, I also would have used other things besides description.

    It's a very fine line. I exaggerated this on purpose to make a point, but what one person considers purple another may find stylish. Much of it is indeed personal taste, which is what makes it so tough. The general style now is more sparse and not as flowery as it was twenty years ago. And that's not as flowery as it was twenty years before that. Trends change.

    It's also a matter of density. Some of these lines on their own might be fine and fit well with the story and voice of the author, and wouldn't be considered overdone. But using a lot of them in one novel might be too much.

    Bottom line, there is no defined amount of what's "good" vs what's "bad." Like so much of writing, individual preferences will determine that. But if you're getting comments from your critique groups that use these terms, these examples are possible reasons why. It's up to the writer to determine how much (if any) they want to edit. But it IS possible to be descriptive and use a lot of imagery and NOT be purple, flowery, or overwritten.

  8. Thank you, yes, I see your point exactly and agree. I guess that's the paragraph you left out.

  9. My writing improves every time I read your posts. For example, I cut eleven words out of the original of the preceding sentence. :)

  10. It seems there is a fine line between building tension and flowery prose. You touched on using drawn out action in a climax. Let's say the zombie is (was?) Bob's wife. Drawing out the action shows his hesitation in perma-killing her. In fact, I could see the scene being lengthened. Is flowery prose accepted in that scene? Is there a greater tolerance for it? Maybe the smooth gun against his calloused hand echoes an earlier scene where his wife's hand was smooth in his calloused hand. Maybe the cobalt-gray steel matches her eyes. Or is that overwriting?

  11. I think the point, unless I'm wrong that as with all aspects of life, Everything in moderation. I totally get what Kris is saying and it's an excellent point and example. And I do love some of that, BUT too much of it can become extremely annoying to me as a reader and would turn me off or cause me to skip which I have done in books before. Not sure if Purple prose and being overly detailed can sometimes be linked into the same category, but if so, I have definitely had some experiences where I pulled out of the story to focus on minute and insignificant details that tried so hard to paint a picture in my mind that it actually became a strange Picasso type feel to me that I could sorta see, but not quite (if that makes sense). I don't think there's anything wrong with Purple/flowery prose, but if I had to read an entire book written in the style of the examples Janice gave, I'd shut the book and move on to another. Perhaps some people like that stuff, but I'm more about the overall story which I think be delivered equally as well in fewer words and details. JMO

  12. Very true, Melanie. It's all about moderation.

    I got a wonderful submission for Real Life Diagnostics yesterday, and it'll make a perfect example for many of the things folks have brought up. That'll post on Friday.

    Good discussion going on. Writing is so subjective it's important to hear lots of opinions and thoughts on any tough topic.

  13. Kris, I talk some about your question in Friday's post, but I'll answer some here as well.

    If emotional impact can be gained by drawing out a scene, of course draw it out. But only if you also add the emotional aspect to it. Without internalization from Bob to know what he's going through, the scene is just a drawn out scene. Some of the emotional impact will be apparent since the reader got that far in the story, but the emotion is what gives the scene punch. Readers won't care all that much about the fancy imagery without Bob's turmoil. They want to know how he feels, what he's going through, how hard this is for him.

    You can go too far on the emotional side as well, so you want to be careful not to overdo it (that path leads to melodrama), but a good balance between the action, description, and emotion makes for a great scene.

  14. This was a GREAT post. This is the biggest problem I find with the hundreds of free ebooks I receive. The best way I can think of to differentiate between overwritten prose and voice is that flowery prose always draws the reader out of the story. Well-written voice which uses description or metaphor emerses the reader deeper into the narrative. Great writing is invisible. It calls attention to the story not the text. And yes, I suffer from bouts of purple prose like the rest of us. Thanks for the laugh-out-loud example of flowery writing!

    1. Thanks! That's a great example of the difference. The more we draw attention to the writing, the less readers notice the story. Good writing only LOOKS effortless :)

  15. I've been doing purple proses. In my 2nd draft I do this, mostly because the 1st draft is so sparse despite the character and setting sketches I do beforehand. In my 3rd draft I'll cut some of it out. Maybeing my 4th daft I'll be cutting more out.

    1. If it suits your process, feel free to do it. Anything goes when drafting :)

  16. MELODY HIGHMAN7/12/2019 7:47 AM

    Janice - Once again you've pulled back curtain on the magic of good writing and shown how it's done. You have the teaching gift! I've enjoyed all of the reader comments as well - especially good. You've hit a nerve. ;)

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. This is exactly why I pulled out the old posts and update them.

  17. We should not treat our readers as idiots who cannot fill in the gaps if enough information is provided. But too sparse can be equally annoying, especially if it comes over as abrupt.

    1. Sorry couldn't have clicked the right buttons for my name to come up. In case it hasn't worked this time - Lindsey Russell (lindelldayrussell)

    2. Exactly. Most readers are pretty sharp and see more into our stories than we do sometimes.

      Too sparse is a whole other problem. Hmmm...I wonder if I've ever written about that? I'll have to check. Thanks for the idea!

  18. This was me as a teenage writer, and my creative writing teacher, the late Roger Woddis, pointed out my purple prose. I can still err after a few decades, so many thanks for this entertaining but invaluable post.

    1. Most welcome. I think this was pretty much every writer as a teen (grin). I know I did it, too. I shudder to remember some of my early short stories.

  19. Sasha Anderson9/13/2020 6:59 AM

    This was very helpful, thanks!

    Just spotted a few typos (and hoping you'd rather have them pointed out than not!):
    - "heard it to" should be "too";
    - "pages of pages" should be "and";
    - "it's skull" (x3), "it's imagery", "it's weepy red eyes" should all be "its";
    - "shinning" should be "shining";
    - "the focus in on" (x2) should be "is on";
    - "one positive aspects" should be "aspect".

    1. I would indeed. Thanks for letting me know. Shames me that this went through two rounds of updates and I still missed them. I am a terrible proofreader.

    2. Sasha Anderson9/15/2020 3:50 AM

      No problem - I find it's always easier to proofread other people's work than my own!