Quick! Tell me something beautiful, deep and profound! Did it sound anything like, “To go along the path is to become one with it”? String together meaningless buzzwords, but retain the syntactic structure of a sensible statement, and some people will tell you that’s deep. According to Ph.D candidate Gordon Pennycook, that’s bullshit.
Pennycook, the author of “The Reception and Detection of Pseudo-profound Bullshit”—yep, a real academic paper that swears—presented 300 test subjects with randomly generated meaningless phrases to rate the profundity. Turns out 27 percent of subjects felt the nonsensical statements were “profound” or “very profound.”
Not surprisingly, Pennycook determined those who were more inclined to call bullshit statements profound were “less reflective, lower in cognitive ability…and more prone to…conspiratorial ideation.”
But what about those who write this pseudo-profound crap? Iflscience.com broke down what the authors of the research consider bullshit, such as “Profound-sounding statements, incredibly vague claims, and scientific-sounding fakery.”
This style of verbal grandstanding is most often seen in New Age spiritualism and popular self-help books, but I would consider the literary equivalent to be the grandiose fluff of Purple Prose. You’ve heard of it, you’ve read it, and you may even be guilty of having written it. It goes something like this:
The explosive passion between them was barely held in check, an accident waiting to happen, a greasy oil slick on a crumbly stretch of pavement sorely in need of repair, where lovers racing a hundred miles per hour might gloriously collide and incinerate, leaving behind nothing but a plume of smoke and the ragged remains of people that had been whole but were now broken.
Like Deepak Chopra-esque quotes, Purple Prose uses unnecessarily difficult words and majestic metaphors that cloud or crowd the meaning of a sentence to make it seem overly profound, which is a hallmark mistake of inexperienced writers. A small percentage of your readers might consider this inflated style brilliant, but the consensus is in: Nobody deserves to have to read bullshit writing.
Here are some ways to avoid being pseudo-profound.
- Practice paring. Check your writing for anything unnecessary—pesky adjectives, adverbs and zombie nouns. Do you really need that metaphor or is there is a more concise way of describing your subject without it?
- Write without airs. Can you write well without using big, fancy words? Challenge yourself to try it. While some writers feel simpler words sound less intelligent, experienced writers remember “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” It takes some skill to craft a beautiful story using simple language.
- Recognize your Purple Prose and why it happens. Most often purple prose crops up when plot or characterization needs to be strengthened. Verbosity might eat up your word count goals, but empty words don’t tell a story. Spot your plot holes and weak characters and work to build them up with action instead of description. In other words, SHOW, don’t tell.
As a writer, when you learn the art of avoiding bullshit, you strengthen your credibility. Pennycook calls the gullible readers who fall for false profundity “less reflective.” Your job is not to dupe your reader with empty words, but to entertain your reader with meaningful content—whether fiction or nonfiction. So, watch your step! There’s bullshit out there everywhere. You can add to it or clean up your writing.
Barring that, this handy bullshit generator appealed to at least 27 percent of test subjects. See what epic fails of profundity you can discover.
Looking for a profoundly good read? Pick up Antebellum Soul: Here & Now by Reatha Beauregard today! Just $2.99 at online booksellers.
Get rid of pesky purple prose. Learn more about how to do that in 5 quick steps here: How to Avoid Using Purple Prose When Writing.