Deb: Keep It Simple

Prose is architecture,
not interior decoration.
~Ernest Hemingway

My only daughter gets married today, on a bluff overlooking Kachemak
. If we pull it off as intended,
it will be beautiful, simple affair.
Make that deceptively simple. A year ago, my daughter
traveled 1500 miles
from Portland to deposit in my
closet the first set of dishes lovingly scavenged for the reception, the
perfect shade of green, more yellow than blue. That was only the beginning. What
followed: dress, rings, music, officiant, photos, catering, cake, lodging,
vows, seating, tents, heaters, rehearsal, plates, flatware, tables, coffee
urns, welcome bags. One hundred twenty-five things to buy, rent, or borrow; 162
items to scratch off the to-do list. Not that anyone’s counting.
In writing it also takes effort to pull off the simple. A
little exposure to the classics, a lot of textbook drivel, and we leave school
with writing that’s pompous and overbearing. Re-training can take years. 
Overwriting is the caste mark of the emerging writer, worn
unaware. “Diction problems are symptomatic of defects in the character or
education of the writer,” John Gardner says. “Both diction shifts and the
steady use of inappropriate diction suggest either deep-down bad taste or the
awkwardness that comes of inexperience and timidity.” Ouch.
In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, agent Jessica Page Morrell calls it purple bling: writing
that’s euphemistic, clichéd, and extravagant. “The problem with purple prose is
that it calls attention to itself instead of performing its job – telling a
story – and it tries too hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions.”
In The First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman echoes this concern. He identifies these warning
signs of overwritten prose: writing that feels forced or exaggerated, not
fitting the subject; books that come off as arenas for showing off the writer’s
talent; and writing so noticeable it drives the reader away from the story.
identifies these signs of badly elevated diction: cliched personification
(“greeted by the sound”), abstract language (“unique sound”), and Latinate
where Anglo-Saxon will suffice (“surveyed the sound situation”).
Maybe once, long ago, you let a purple phrase or two slip.
Examples, courtesy of Morrell:
  • In
    love scenes, quivering and throbbing; breasts as mounds or globes, couples locked
    in a primal dance
  • Storms
    featuring distant thunder and menacing clouds that crouch on the horizon, generating violent gusts of wind that frighten the shutters
  • Characters
    known to the core of their being
    or to every fiber of their being;
    characters who experience the slow
    burn of anger
    or who are touched
    to their innermost souls
Fortunately, there’s a cure. “By reading carefully and
extensively,” Gardner says, “by
writing constantly and getting the best criticism available to him, the writer
who begins with no feeling for diction can eventually overcome his problems.”
Try This: As an antidote for purple prose, Lukeman
recommends rewriting a passage in a style exactly the opposite of its original.
“If your style is straightforward,” he says, “try one that is convoluted; if it
is baroque, try one that is minimalist.”
Check This Out: For no-holds-barred advice from a master,
read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. “A necessary handbook, a stern judge, an
encouraging friend,” is how John L’Heureux describes this classic.

2 thoughts on “Deb: Keep It Simple”

  1. Have fun at the wedding, Deb! My daughter is getting married next year–we should talk later! 🙂

    Good advice on writing, thanks.

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