Purple Prose Cause #5: An Abundance of Choice

In various Facebook writing groups, I’ve seen people ask several times why non-native English speakers decide to use it as their fiction language of choice. Besides the fact that it is the most commercially viable creative language and most of the media they consume is likely in English, I believe there is also a more intrinsically artistic reason as well. Simply put, English has more words at its disposal.

I learned this while I was on my study abroad in Barcelona back in my college days. I was enrolled in an internship program, and part of it the requirement was to take a class about cultural differences. We talked about communication in terms of high- and low-context cultures and languages.

High-context cultures rely on non-verbal (or written) communication to convey the true meaning and sentiment behind an act of communication. Tonal languages, for example, have much more happening than just the syllable spoken, and when written require tons of extra marks to show the right tonal interpretation. Anyone who has seen Italians having a conversation can attest to how much they gesture, as if their language is one-half spoken and one-half signing.

English, and by extension English speakers, are the opposite. We are a low-context group, which means the exact words we use are paramount to conveying our meaning. Ergo, more words with different and exact meanings. The Oxford English dictionary contains over 170,000 entries for words in use today, plus 9,500 sub-entries and nearly 50,000 entries for obsolete words. That’s a LOT of language to work with!

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And therein lies both the trap and the means to escape it. Not only do we have a myriad of adjectives and nouns to choose from, English also borrows heavily from other languages in the pursuit of precision. Which means a writer in pursuit of clear communication can also winnow their word choices down to something precise, like the exact shade of purple. Readers nowadays also have the advantage of often reading on e-readers that have built in thesauruses to help them figure out vocabulary they don’t know.

Unfortunately, many writers believe that adding more words or overly complex and uncommon words makes their meaning clearer, but the opposite is often the case. There has to be balance between the known and the unknown or you risk alienating readers.

Purple Prose Fix #9: Writing is about Communicating to an Audience, Not Proving How “Smart” You Are

There are mathematical formulas that help to classify pieces of writing by their “readability.” These scores are assigned grade levels, though they don’t necessarily reflect the amount of education a person with that score has received. For instance, the average adult in the US reads at around a 7th-8th grade level even though finishing 12th grade is mandatory. The scale goes from 4th-6th grade (very easy) to 13+ (very hard, college level) and is determined using both the number of words in a sentence and the complexity (number of clauses, conjunctions, etc.)

7th grade sentences have around 20 words. This doesn’t mean you can’t have longer or shorter sentences, but if you go longer than that you had better have a good reason behind it. The juxtaposition of long and short sentences can be a very powerful tool for creating mood. However, too many long sentences with the same structure over and over again get tiresome.

The 20-word guidepost is why you will often see sentences in news stories that begin with conjunctions even though your English teacher told you never to do that. They are splitting the sentences in order to make the writing easier to digest by separating distinct ideas. The Hemingway App is an excellent tool for testing the grade level of your writing and highlighting specific sentences that need attention. It is biased against adverbs and can’t be taken as 100% right all the time, but it is a very good place to start. 

I have mentioned the 7th grade figure in writing groups and people always line up to belittle the “average” American and our school system. (And of course, always hold themselves far above this standard without ever measuring themselves…) That is missing the point completely.

Saying that people are “stupid” doesn’t change the fact that they are who you need to be targeting if you want to be commercially successful. Just because “above average” is viewed positively doesn’t mean that “average” is bad by definition. It simply means that if you want to reach the most people, it’s a good yardstick to make sure you aren’t talking down to or over the heads of your audience.

The first draft of this series was at a 9th grade reading level. Not too shabby, but I still went into the Hemingway App and took some of the suggestions to get it down to 8th grade. No sense writing 4,000+ words of advice if you can’t understand me!

This is especially true if you goal is to create entertainment for other people, which is exactly what commercial fiction is. If you are only interested in writing for a small, elite audience who “get it,” then don’t be surprised if you don’t sell many books. It isn’t the reader’s responsibility to drag meaning out of the quagmire of your words. It’s the writer’s responsibility to create meaning out of thin air. A challenge, to be sure, but a challenge that anyone can meet with enough diligence, practice, and the strength to properly edit their work.

Do you have any tips for avoiding purple prose? Or maybe you’re a fan and have something to say in its defense? Do you have examples to share or a question about a particular passage that may need some help? Share with us in the comments!

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