One of the biggest shifts in writing styles over the past 150 years has been the demise of purple prose.
In part this is to do with the way English has changed over the period. We don’t talk today the way we did then. I wrote a book last year revolving around a series of diaries and love letters written by a figure from the 1850s (it’s in with the publisher, more on this anon) – and the difference in the language was startling. However, de-purpling has also been an active styling trend on top of the linguistic shift, and it was driven particularly by newspaper journalism in the early twentieth century. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway then picked that up and fed it into general literature.
That trend’s continuing today, but you might not know it from some of the stylings inflicted upon us in self-pubbed books. The main problem is to do with adjectives, often dropped into grammatical structures that, technically, render them adverbs, compound nouns and so forth.
It’s all a matter of taste, of course. But the usual trend these days is to simplify, keep the colour out, and keep the language active. The doyen of it was Isaac Asimov, whose writing was often criticised for having ‘no style’ – absolute plain vanilla. And yet it worked, brilliantly. A more recent example of what I’m getting at is J. K. Rowling, whose stylings combine simplicity with clarity and a wonderful lightness of touch.
Put another way, her words didn’t get between her story and the reader – and that, I think, is one of the reasons why Harry Potter was so popular.
How to do it? My suggestions:
1. In fiction, what counts isn’t the description of the scene, it’s how the characters react to it. The reader will share their reactions and build a much more powerful impression of the scene than if you tell them what it is, plod-fashion.
2. The same is also true of non-fiction, outside lists of data; how did people react to events or a moment?
3. Grammatic structure counts, at this level. Personally I try to avoid sentence structures that require adverbs as an initial modifier ahead of the predicate. Means I don’t get mired in a sea of compound adverbs and hyphen nightmares. (As opposed to getting compound-adjective miring in a hyphen-sea nightmare).
Ultimately it’s all a matter of taste, but I think the lessons offered by people like Rowling versus their sales figures are a pointer. Simple is good. Straight-forward is good. Plain vanilla – with, perhaps, a careful sprinkling of other flavours – works.
Do you ever consciously simplify your style when writing?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013