August 3, 2011

Is your writing too flowery?

"Now ain't that purdy? I don't know what it means, but it sure does sound elegant." ~Cap Rountree, from "The Sacketts"

"That's beautiful... no idea what you just said." ~Riley Poole, from "National Treasure"
Ever felt this way while reading? The words all sound so beautiful and rich, and they flow together so perfectly and elegantly... but you have absolutely no idea what the author or speaker is talking about? The meaning is lost in a flourish of fancy wording?
It doesn't happen too often in contemporary fiction any more, for a number of reasons. The average American's vocabulary is shrinking markedly, for one. And, with competition in the writing industry becoming more fierce all the time, writers have less room to get away with literary sins like using over-flowery language.
But in a lot of older fiction, and in much of the work of beginning writers today, flamboyant, flowery language abounds. And while it usually sounds gloriously elegant and beautifully crafted to the ear, a reader trying to follow the meaning of the words can find himself or herself frustrated, irritated, and confused.
So why use flowery, overwrought wording when clear, concise English would do just fine? Well, there's an answer for that, but it's rather complicated.
When it comes to older fiction, it's a tough call. The wording might truly be excessively fancy, or, depending on the age of the book, it might just be the product of a different era with a different and wider vocabulary. English has come a long way in the last 700 years, remember. Words and sentence structure that sound completely archaic and nonsensical to us today were just common household language four or five centuries ago.
As for today, though... well, that's another story.
There are lots of possible reason why a writer might use flowery language in their writing. They might be trying to sound intelligent and intellectual and think using fancy words will help them. They might be trying to paint a vibrant and dramatic word picture and using flamboyant wording is the only way they know to do it. They might be trying to make their prose seem strong and well-crafted when it's actually rather weak and uncertain. They might think it will impress editors looking for some skillful word-use.
I'll talk about each of these briefly in this post, but if anyone has any questions or comments to add, feel free. The comment box is there for a reason. ; )

Excuse #1: Trying to sound intellectual.
Bottom line: It's about what you have to say, not about how you say it. Any goober can learn a bunch of fancy words, affect a stuffy accent, and act like they're smarter than everyone else. The real intellectuals with something meaningful to say don't have to use fancy words to get their point across. The best communicators in the world get their messages across in clear, concise, understandable words that anyone can follow.

Excuse #2: Trying to paint a vibrant and dramatic picture.
Bottom line: I'm a writer, so I understand the need and the desire to paint dramatic pictures with words. It's part of what makes our writing interesting, right? Right. However, f what you're describing isn't really all that dramatic, no amount of flowery language will help that. For example: don't describe sunsets. Just don't, okay? Unless you're describing the strange effects a nuclear explosion is having on the appearance of the sunset, or your character has been blind his entire life and is miraculously able to witness a sunset for the first time, or something equally astounding, just save yourself the trouble and don't describe it (and that goes for sunrises too). The sun has been rising and setting every day for the last 6,000 years, which to comes to roughly 2,190,000 sunsets and sunrises since the dawn of time. No offense, but I doubt very seriously that you have anything original to say in describing it. Now, you speculative writers out there, if you're describing some new aspect of a fictional world you've created, and it's something the readers have never seen before, by all means describe it for them! But don't think you need flowery language to do it. If you're describing something new, original, interesting, and important to the story, the readers will find it interesting. Even without the use of a hundred four-syllable adjectives.

Excuse #3: Trying to shore up weak prose.
Bottom line: I've said it before--Don't put a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches. If your writing is weak, deal with the problem at its source. Study grammar and sentence structure. Read some good books on the craft and skill of fiction writing. Learn to write tight, clear, and concise prose that stands on its own feet without the aid of crutches like flowery words.

Excuse #4: Trying to impress editors.
Bottom line: It won't work. Period. They'll see right through it. Trust me.

Why do you think so many writers are tempted to use flowery language? Do you struggle with the temptation? If so, what do you do about it?


  1. I'm in a weird situation.
    First of all, I grew up in home where the father took pride in speaking over other people's heads. He has since given his heart to Jesus and is far more humble that when I was a child.
    But this resulted in two things.
    1.) Big words don't scare me.
    2.) Nor do big words impress me.

    Watching my father confuse people caused me to think... What is the point of communication if you aren't actually communicating?

    What impresses me in good communication.
    People who are able to communicate complex things in simple form without dumbing down the info impress me even more.

    I know, I know. I'm weird. Guess that's why I like Spec Fiction.

  2. I agree with you whole-heartedly, Kaye. A truly good communicator should be able to simplify what they're saying enough that someone who isn't an expert in their field can grasp it, but at the same time not make the listener feel like a two-year-old.
    Good thoughts.

  3. Or, maybe it's just the way they write.


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.