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In honor of the upcoming launch of my premium course, Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked, I thought we’d go over some common mistakes we all make when trying to up our description game.
Description mistake #1
Most of us have felt at one time or another that to describe means to be dramatic. Check this out:
She slithered into the room, gloriously shimmering from head to toe. Every man in the room cast his eyes on the dazzling figure she cut. As Percival sipped his cold martini, its tang burning the roof of his mouth, his sea-green eyes watched her closely. As Chloe strutted past him, the scent of her Chanel No. 5 wafted into his nostrils, awakening memories of their magical time together.
Okay, other than the fact that this is the worst piece of prose I’ve ever written in my life – but do you think I could get a job writing for Harlequin Romances? – I have to ask you something: are martinis tangy?
This overly dramatic paragraph is not only bad, it’s full of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, no-no’s I’ve harped on in several posts. Moreover, do we really care that Percival’s mouth is burning? I know I don’t. And I really don’t want to hear about his nostrils.
Yes, you need descriptive words to convey time, place, and mood, but if the description is not necessary to the plot or thesis, don’t go there.
Sometimes, less is more. Try using hard-working nouns and verbs to do the heavy lifting, so you won’t have to fall back on excessive verbiage.
Check your adjectives and adverbs (if you must use them) for accuracy. I personally wouldn’t want to see a woman slithering into a room; what is she, a snake? Put yourself in the mind of your reader. Your descriptive words are going to evoke feelings; which do you want your reader to experience? Once you figure that out, find words that will do the job.
Description mistake #2
This is the type of writing sounds like the author is looking over their shoulder while writing. Often, one gets the feeling that they’re trying to imitate a famous author in the process. While I encourage you to read many and varied authors – and I even suggest you write out particularly excellent descriptions in longhand – when it’s time to do your own writing, you need to take lessons from the greats but employ your own, unique style.
Here’s a parody of Ernest Hemingway, who was famous for his bare minimum, Marlboro Man descriptions:
The mountain stood naked in the early-morning sun. Birds flew from their aeries in anticipation of a new day of scavenging. The man shrugged his backpack onto his shoulders, beginning the ascent. The smell of last night’s campfire emanated from his wrinkled, slept-in clothes. He walked on the path toward his destiny.
Very nice (not). It’s certainly better than the first example, but not by much. Nothing really happens. Again, where in this paragraph is the plot being moved forward?
What does a naked mountain look like? And what’s with this destiny thing? Is the author going to develop it; does he himself even know what that last sentence means? Remember: Never write a word whose meaning and implication you don’t absolutely know. Don’t sacrifice clarity and purpose on the altar of cheap Hemingway leftovers.
As a side issue, notice the rhythm of the sentences; they are almost all the same: subject-verb-prepositional phrase-comma-participle phrase. I am a fan of aural writing, meaning that the prose must sound right to my ear. Therefore, when I’m reading over what I wrote (BTW, I do read everything over three or four times, and I recommend this for everyone), I make sure to vary the rhythm of the sentences, their length, and their syntax.
Description mistake #3
Too many “to be” words
Many of us use a lot of “to be” words, which generally don’t contribute to original, thought-provoking prose.
While it’s fine to Tell sometimes, we should all be wary of too many “to be” words. Even when Telling, you can use other verbs. Check this out:
A book was on the floor, and Martine was picking it up when Jean Claude walked into the room. He was wearing brown corduroy trousers and a black shirt. The other books were on the shelves according to color. Jean Claude snorted when he saw them.
The problem with this paragraph is that it’s a parade of was, was, was, and were. let’s dress it up with a few descriptive verbs and judiciously placed adjectives and/or adverbs:
Jean Claude entered the room, wearing brown corduroy trousers and a black shirt that set off his emerald-green eyes. A book lay on the floor, and Martine bent to pick it up as she glanced at him. The rest of the books on the shelves were categorized according to color. Jean Claude stared at this bizarre arrangement, his eyes flickering with amusement and the dimple on his cheek deepening.
As I’ve said both here and here, Tell is usually cause and Show is generally effect. The first three sentences in this excerpt are more Telling, as they give us information without the emotional investment. The last sentence is Show, as the flicker of amusement and the deepening dimple
- were caused by the wonky placement of the books on the shelves and
- demonstrate how Jean Claude experienced the vision of the books.
Description mistake #4
Many times, descriptive writing will require you to get into the head of a character and find a way to convey what they’re feeling or experiencing. If you want to employ description, you won’t be able to get away with “She felt bad” or “She was freezing.” You also have to be careful about hackneyed phrases, which won’t do your subjects justice.
James drove the convertible like he was competing in the Indy 500. The wind was ice-cold and his tears froze on his cheeks. He drove relentlessly toward his father’s house, dreading the moment he had to break the terrible news. The wedding was off.
It was like being rejected from the high school basketball team all over again. How would he face his father as he turned the key in the lock? The wedding was off. James felt the old lump in his throat and his racing heart. And something new, too; his cheeks were wet.
In the second example, we learn how James is feeling from the comparison between his present rejection and his rejection from the basketball team. Who among us hasn’t experienced some sort of rejection in our lives? Who hasn’t felt a lump in their throat? Don’t we all remember an event where we dreaded facing our parents?
Moreover, the second excerpt draws us in to James’ world; we experience what he’s experiencing. With superficial description, that can’t happen. Feelings and emotions can be reported, but not experienced.
As you can see, there’s more to descriptive writing than just “describing something.” The warning signs I outlined above will help you ask yourself the right questions and present your prose clearly and interestingly.
For more on description, consider taking my course, Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked. Click here to get on the waiting list! And stay tuned for more on descriptive writing in the next few weeks. And, as always,
P.S. Here’s the link for the giveaway again.