Is your prose either too simple and boring, or too pretentious and inauthentic? Do you ever feel like you just can’t find the right words?
You’re not alone.
Back in December I published a post on description. I discussed how you can use it in your writing to convey character, place, mood, and context to your readers.
Many of you requested more posts on both description and its mother-in-law, the “show, don’t tell” technique.
I want to show you how an author of historical non-fiction uses description to paint a written picture so vivid, so accurate, that you can actually see colors, smell odors, feel textures, hear voices, and taste flavors.
Her name is Barbara Tuchman, and the book is The Guns of August. Published in 1962, it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1963. (BTW, it’s Pull-itzer, not Pule-itzer.) According to Wikipedia, that arbiter of truth and accuracy, the book focuses mostly on the first month of World War I, roughly one-fiftieth of the conflict. Weighing in at 511 pages, that’s a lot of description. (Did I just dangle a participle? See this article to find out.)
I like to think of Barbara Tuchman as a classical author, sort of like the Rembrandt of words. She was both a historian and a journalist, combining the two disciplines to produce her magnificent books.
Far to the left, since early morning, the British and von Kluck’s Army had been locked in a duel over the sixty-foot width of the Mons Canal. The August sun broke through early morning mist and rain, bringing promise of great heat later in the day. Sunday church bells were ringing as usual as the people of the mining villages went to Mass in their black Sunday clothes. The canal, bordered by railroad sidings and industrial backyards, was black with slime and reeked of chemical refuse from furnaces and factories. In among small vegetable plots, pastures, and orchards the gray pointed slag heaps like witches’ hats stuck up everywhere, giving the landscape a bizarre, abnormal look. War seemed less incongruous here.” (The Guns of August, p. 254)
Don’t ever tell me that non-fiction can’t be more interesting than fiction.
Why is this paragraph so brilliant? Here are four techniques Tuchman employs:
She uses all five senses.
We can see early morning sun and anticipate the weather becoming more intense throughout the day. We hear the villages’ church bells competing with each other as the people stream out of their homes and into their houses of worship. It’s easy to smell the metallic odor emitted by the machines coming off the slimy canal; I can even taste it in my mouth.
The ugly gray slag heaps provide a dramatic contrast both visually and tactilely to the bright colors of the vegetable plots, the pastures, and the orchards.
She uses simple, clear words.
Except for the last sentence, you don’t see academic-level words over here: “The August sun broke through”; “Sunday church bells were ringing”; “The canal…was black.” The perfection is in how Tuchman arranges them by adding descriptive adjectives and varying her sentences with both active and passive verbs, clauses, a simile or two, commas to slow the reader down, and continuous words to speed him or her up.
She makes her words do heavy lifting.
This obviates the need for long-windedness. Observe how seamless “the sixty-foot width of the Mons Canal” sounds, as opposed to “The Mons Canal, which was sixty feet across,” or worse, “…the Mons Canal. It was sixty feet in width.”
Notice the phrase “as usual,” which evokes continuity and regularity, and the vivid, descriptive clause “bordered by railroad sidings and industrial backyards,” which Tuchman slips in between the simplest of sentences (“the canal…was black”). The clause is show, while the sentence that bookends it is tell.
More heavy-duty words: “reeked,” “bizarre,” “abnormal.”
There is no better way to demonstrate the incongruity between the breathtaking agricultural villages that made up most of the European countryside in 1914 and the prospect of war, than by writing about an ugly, smelly, and depressing-looking mining village and employing the phrase “less incongruous.” Think what the last sentence of this paragraph would have (not) evoked had Tuchman used “fitting,” “appropriate,” or even “congruous.”
She demonstrates absolutely no pretense.
This is the culmination of the first three techniques. Notice how Tuchman shows and tells it like it is, eyes forward, never looking over her shoulder to see how impressed we are with hokey words and lazy adverbs that shove her editorial opinions down our throats. There is no need for her to pass judgment or patronize. Like the quintessential journalist that she was, Tuchman reports.
Just for the record: Words: 121. “To be” verbs: 3. Adverbs: 0.
In my opinion, there is a direct correlation between the second two statistics and seamless, close-to-perfect writing.
You knew I’d say that.
Write a paragraph, about one hundred words, describing somewhere you went recently. Use your new insights from this post. And don’t forget to send it to me, either in the Comments section or via email (Deena@BulletproofWriting.com). I’ll publish some of them on the Writer’s Clinic page.