Any Color but Purple

Colorless writing may have its place in certain contexts, but when we need to capture the attention of our readers; when we need to create word pictures that will, as William Shakespeare put it, on their “imaginary forces work,” a splash of paint is very much in order. We can draw inspiration from Charles Dickens, who was blessed with extraordinary powers of description. Here, from the opening pages of Great Expectations, is his depiction of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch:

“A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”

The power of this passage owes much to its rhythm, which depends, in part, on the artful use of parallelism, but thanks to Dickens’ choice of words, the “grey” figure he describes is anything but monotone. And while novelists have greater scope to fire the imagination than university administrators, there are ample opportunities to heighten the impact of our words. Take this sentence from Christopher L. Eisgruber’s recent President’s Page in the Princeton Alumni Weekly on the renewal of Firestone Library:

“Much like renovating a ship at sea, the library must remain open and fully operational while the renovation proceeds.” With one short clause, President Eisgruber conveyed the formidable challenge of renovating a fully operational and heavily utilized library without benefit, to continue his analogy, of dry dock.

It is also possible to have too much color to assail our readers’ senses so forcefully that the point we are trying to fortify is obscured or distorted. Purple prose, the term for such excess, becomes an end in itself, as this example from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which celebrates “wretched” writing, illustrates (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a less gifted novelist than Dickens, penned the much maligned opening phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night”):

“As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue” (courtesy of Mike Pedersen, 2011 purple prose winner).

So dust off your palettes when you next sit down to write. Your readers will thank you!