Write it now, part 22: don’t let the words get between you and the reader

One of the biggest shifts in writing styles over the past 150 years has been the demise of purple prose.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdCheck out newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century, particularly, and you’ll see how modern written English has been slimmed down. Made less pompous. More efficient. More active.

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

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9 comments on “Write it now, part 22: don’t let the words get between you and the reader

  1. L. Palmer says:

    I work hard to simplify my writing style as I go along. That’s actually what I’m working on in my current draft. I ask myself: is it clear while driving the story along?

  2. I often hear it said that the best actors don’t seem to be acting; it’s the ultimate compliment. Writing is evolving in the same direction. The reader wants the story to advance and not become bogged-down in prose from which there’s no escape. I’ve read paragraphs that new writers post on Facebook that are packed to overflowing with adverbs and adjectives. When I translate it becomes, “He walked across the room.” The writing experience is for the writer, but the end product is for the reader. The difference is editing.

    • Exactly right. The best at any of these arts make it look as if it’s too easy for words…when in fact it isn’t. I choose my words here deliberately :-)

      The master when it comes to this sort of writing? To my mind, Hemingway – though it’s a personal choice and I am sure other people will have different – and equally valid – views on that.

  3. EagleAye says:

    A lot of useful info in there. Thanks for posting this.

    • Glad to be of assistance. It’s paradoxical in a way – ‘words’ interfering with a writer transferring meaning…but not if we reduce writing to what it is, emotionally, which is a transfer of concept to invoke something in the recipient. Words are always going to be imperfect vehicles for the job (just as notes are to musicians, who do the same thing in their own way).

  4. I tend to write simply and have to go back and fill in details and color later. It is an area that I’m working to improve on when in first draft.

    • Layering your writing up like that, via repeated revision passes that each add something else, sounds like a perfectly good way of doing it – it’s how I write myself!

  5. I tend to write in simple short sentences and occasionally use terms that may not be familiar to everyone. I’ll add the descriptive words or phrases later, but then I recently read that you don’t want to do that. I don’t think I go overboard, but it’s not fair to expect the readers to read my mind. (Besides, they may not like what they find.)
    This was the first that I’ve heard the term “purple prose”.
    Thank you for such an informative article.

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