Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Descriptions

Night Blooming Epi

A friend of mine and her husband are voracious readers. She has been a huge supporter of my writing from the beginning and knows I like to learn from other writers. Last night in an email she wrote:

"(husband) convinced me to read James Lee Burke's new book. He absolutely loves the way he writes descriptions. Everytime he reads one of them he goes on about how you can just visualize the settings and events. The vocabulary he uses is amazing and we find ourselves looking up the words we have never heard of. What is interesting is the books are easy to read and understand despite the wide vocabulary."

This made me think about the way I write descriptions. Am I the kind of writer that would make a reader convince someone else to read my work because I write great descriptions? Sadly, I have to admit, I do not, yet...I did a lot of soul searching and looking through my present WIP. My descriptions are adequate, a few are memorable, but I definitely need to improve.

We've been urged to write tighter and tighter in children's writing but rev up the action. We are supposed to grab them immediately and not let them go. Most of their focus is on video games, CD's, TV, DVD's, text messaging, and so many other things that have to do with speed and immediate gratification. Even in the classroom, the teacher has to keep their attention with some type of dog and pony show when presenting a new lesson. That is not a bad thing, I've done it myself and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I can't help wondering if we may be shortchanging children today.

 In The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Med Leder, Jack Hefron, and the editors of Writer's Digest, Janet Fitch wrote in her chapter Sense and Sensuality, "Think how paltry our lives have become at the end of the twentieth century, compared....other regions of the world still rich in uncensored sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes."

I would like to believe one of the purposes of a writer in this century is to bring the desire for each reader to go out and experience the sensory world around him. Janet Fitch's article contains six exercises to improve descriptive writing, I think today's writing time will be spent doing those exercises and applying them to my WIP.


  1. It's strange, how descriptions work in today's world, because we are (in general) a faster paced society and the attention span is over all a bit less than it was. I actually find myself skimming the descriptions if they are drawn out, so in this way I am guilty of the attention span epidemic. The trilogy by Lisa McMann was almost entirely white space with few descriptions and a very fast paced read. I was only a a little upset that I never got a good visual on the characters but I wasn't bothered by the white space otherwise because it was just, bam, bam, bam type writing. For me it was a lesson on how to manuever white space, from being either too little or too much.
    I do enjoy good descriptions but for me I like them in moderation. Goodness there are people who can describe dirt so well you want to take a shower but four pages of how dirt feels, smells, tastes?, too much and I skim. Guilty.
    Pushing yourself to include more though is fabulous. I have to work on including descriptions into my work. I've heard that including food can really set a scene all on it's own.
    A burger and fries sets up a diner much faster than say the tile or the seating.
    Oysters over a already find the beach on your own.

  2. Good points. I, like you, do like brevity, and a writer can get carried away. I just finished a book that I feel the author was "padding" with descriptions to reach her word count. Her secondary POV character sat in his own car for four pages, looking out the window at the falling snow while the police recovered a body and examined the murder scene (they wouldn't let him up close for us to see) so all he did was sit in the car and think about what could've happened to the victim, call his wife and tell her what could have happened, and tell us about how cold the weather was. This was after he drove for hours in a blizzard--believe me we learned early on it was cold and snowy but she had to keep telling us. This is NOT what I want to learn to do ;)

  3. Description that goes on and on can make a reader skip it. But I don't think it's the length or the brevity of the description. I think it has to hook you. And a great way to do that is by painting a picture.

    I just corrected two student's papers. One had description that was nothing more than lists of adjectives. It went on for a two pages. Boooring. The other was a page and a half of imagery, of showing, of painting a picture of the character in action. I was hooked. And sorry to see the end of the exercise.

    Another way to hook the reader is to make the description unique. Sometimes one specific detail will speak volumes. Too many characters have *yawn* pale as milk skin. But throw a scar down their left cheek and you've got your reader wondering, and turning the page.

  4. Andrea, that second writer makes teaching worthwhile, doesn't it, when they "get it"? Good point about painting a picture to hook the reader.

  5. When I do beta reads of fiction or edit nonfiction for clients, I keep urging them to choose one image, not pile them up. Make a decision already! {But I say it more kindly than that} {usually}

  6. Love that pic of the night blooming flower. My type of flower. :)

    Honestly, I'm terrible at descriptions -- it is one of my weak spots and something I really have to concentrate on in revisions.

    But I think you do make a good point about writing for adults and then writing for children. You do need to grab this audience a little quicker than you would say an adult audience.

    But I love active descriptions. Hate data dumps. When I'm reading and I see whole paragraphs of description, I hate to say but I tend to skim.

  7. Karen, I do that, too, especially in the too long paragraphs.

  8. I feel as if description are one thing I'm good at but I use them sparingly. I don't plague the page with them because that just gets boring to readers.