Wednesday, October 10, 2012


In preparation for tonight's writers group, I have been surfing the net on this month's topic of over-writing. 

Keeping away from Purple Prose and limiting the use of adjectives and adverbs  were, of course, the 'rules' that gave me the most hits. But just how long have writers been given this advice? 

I thought they were a rather newish addition to 'writing 101'. But here we have Horace waxing lyrical about purple patches in the 1st Century BC!   

"Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy
purple patches; as when describing
a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana,
or a stream meandering through fields,
or the river Rhine, or a rainbow;
but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render
a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint
a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?"

- Quintus Horatius Flaccus (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC), known as Horace in the English speaking world.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus - Horace

And here is Mark Twain's take on the overuse of adverbs and adjectives, a 130 odd years ago. (I particularly like the 1st quote.)  

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
- Letter to Orion Clemens, 3/23/1878

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English--it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
- Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't.
- "Reply to a Boston Girl," Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910)  a.k.a. Mark Twain
What's your favourite writer's quote?


  1. Oh, how I love Mark Twain's remark about lightning and thunder. I feel that way sometimes when I'm writing and what I wrote feels like it came from God himself (as there is no earthly way I could have come up with it!).

    Favorite writing quote: "The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."

    1. I like your quote. No rough drafts with brain surgery! Glad I'm not a surgeon.

  2. I just love your quote by Mark Twain ... you thunder and lightning too much you cease to go under the bed by and by... how very true.

    Sue my new blog is now on my website