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Beware of nominalizations (AKA zombie nouns)

Few mistakes sour good writing like nominalizations, or, as Helen Sword likes to call them, zombie nouns.  Zombie nouns transform simple and straightforward prose into verbose and often confusing writing. Keep your nouns away from elongating nominalizations!

Don’t be a Dickens: Avoiding Purple Prose


nothing-can-be-gained asked: Where does the line between purple prose and vivid description lie? How can I tell if something I’ve written is purple prose-like?

You know when you read a book a get to a passage or a line and say, “Great Scott, the things I would do to be able to write sentences like that.” Often, in trying to write a sentence like that, you end up with a writer’s disease called purple prose.

Purple Prose: Writing so extravagant or orate that it breaks the flow of the narrative and draws attention to itself.

The Elements of Style calls this writing that is “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” There’s no solid example of purple prose since the definition is subjective, but it is something you definitely don’t want. Below is one example of the evolution from concise language to purple prose:

  • Plain: He set the cup down.
  • Middle Ground: He eased the Big Gulp onto the table.
  • ACK: Without haste, the tall, blond man lowered the huge, plastic, gas station cup with a bright red straw onto the slick surface of the coffee table.

Hopefully no one is shooting for the last example. The problem, of course, is differentiating between that writing which invites disgust and vivid, beautiful writing. There is nothing wrong with description; however, learning what needs to be described and when to describe it is vital, and that kind of experience takes time hone.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind while working out the distinction between purple prose and good description:

  • The author does not exist. Ideally, a reader should be sitting there completely unaware that someone designed all of this. Once the author pokes his head through the cracks of the story, part of that reading experience is interrupted. Another way of looking at this is in terms of John Gardner’s “vivid and continuous dream”.
    In bad or unsatisfying fiction, [the] fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist… It is as if a playwright were to run out on stage, interrupting his characters, to remind us that he has written all this. (x)
    The story is not about you (unless it’s an autobiography/memoir). The story is about the story. Your merits as a writer will come forward in a faithful telling of it, with language that will vividly depict it, not language that is trying to show off your skill. The real skill in this department is not in flowery language, but in precision of language, which we’ll see below.
  • Be concise. One of the main complaints about purple prose is that it is unnecessarily flowery and takes forever to read. There’s a story in there somewhere, and your reader should not have to machete their way through your description to get there. There is description that is necessary and helpful in building the experience that the reader should experience, but in can be easy to fall into the trap of pontificating. This is where use of concrete detail matters the most. To learn more about that, check out this post.
  • Keep control of your adverbs. There’s this whole hulabaloo over adverbs nowadays. Should you use them? Should you not? (There’s a bit about that here.) Adverbs exist, and therefore can and should be used. Using an adverb, however, sometimes indicates the presence of a weak verb. For example, if you say that a character “searched unsystematically,” you’d probably be better off saying that she “rummaged”. We have lots of words in English, many of which have beautifully concise definitions. Use those.
  • Omit needless words. Using unnecessary words simply bogs down your writing. It doesn’t make your passage richer, it just gets in the way of things that matter. In the words of George Carlin:
    People add extra words when they want things to sound more important than they really are. ‘Boarding process’ sounds important. It isn’t. It’s just a bunch of people getting on an airplane. (x)
    Using your words effectively will be enough to make your point. Check out this selection from Oliver Twist, in which the narrator tries to tell us that Oliver had a breathing problem.
    The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration, - a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence.

    Charlie (can I call you “Charlie”?), we know that breathing is necessary for existence. Just tell us that Ollie had a hard time with it. That’s all we need.

    Omitting needless words does not mean cutting out all of your description or only using simple words and single-clause sentences, it only means that every word must serve a specific purpose.

  • Get rid of zombie nouns. Along with omitting needless words and using concise language, a great way to combat purple prose is to purge your work of as many nominalizations (deemed zombie nounsby Helen Sword) as you can.
    Nominalization (n): A type of word formation in which a verb or an adjective (or other part of speech) is used as (or transformed into) a noun. (x)
    These words, though often thought to be impressive, can actually blur the intent of your writing and make you seem pretentious. For more on nominalizations, check out Beware of nominalizations (AKA zombie nouns).
  • Use your ear. Trust yourself. If you read something and say, “Hmm, this might be a little purple,” chances are that it is. When you look at a passage and say that a bunch of lines could be condensed into one, or a clause could be substituted for a single, stronger word, do it. Try not to use something outlandish without a good reason. Try literally reading aloud to help you hear the cadence and tone of your writing, as well as listen to how long you dwell on descriptions of a particular subject. However, when reading out loud, be sure not to lend your work a favorable rhythm that is not really there.
  • Purple prose is not impressive. The language that blows us away is not the language that is excessively ornate, it’s the language that is precise. Don’t feel a need to impress your reader with your writing abilities. If you get around that pretension and focus instead on focusing the intent of your words, your readers will end up impressed.
  • Murder your darlings. This advice (actually first given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not Faulkner) is another barometer to use in terms of purple prose. Being impressed with a lovely turn of phrase isn’t always a bad sign, but it could be. If a passage that you wrote amazes you, take a good hard look at it. It might have to go.
  • You still have the right to write. Cutting out purple prose is not cutting out talent. Cutting out purple prose is cutting out language that looks more like a vocabulary exercise than a story. Use all of the vivid description you want, but be sure to pay close attention to the purpose of your words. Keep the above advice in mind, but know that if you have a lot of description and it’s all worthwhile, keep it.

Clearing out purple prose is a service to your story. It gets the reader more involved in its reading in the sense that it becomes a more intimate experience, as the story is being told without interrupting the vivid and continuous dream. It also can help tell your story more effectively if you cut down and use language that is more focused.

There is no straight answer to this question. Because each writer’s style is different, the line for purple prose may change from person to person, and what pleases you will not please everyone. There are things to keep in mind in terms of keeping your diction focused, but your style is your style.

Further Reading:

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- O


Daphne Guinness by Markus+Indrani for Tatler Hong Kong.
In Chanel Haute Couture. Talk about drama! -RS (Image via fashiongonerogue)


Daphne Guinness by Markus+Indrani for Tatler Hong Kong.

In Chanel Haute Couture. Talk about drama! -RS (Image via fashiongonerogue)

(via hellhoundstooth)


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Keep Calm and Lump Off! Wear Lumpy Space Princess with pride! T-shirt is available in over 20 colors for all ages and sexes.

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