The giveaway for a month of writing and editorial mentoring is over, and the winner is… Naomi from Brooklyn! Congratulations, Naomi, and thanks to everyone for entering and generating excitement about my blog and my soon-to-be-launched course, Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked.
I’ve just come back from the recording studio, where I recorded Wake Up Your Prose for the 4th time! Now I know that you will be getting top-quality sound along with professional slides, super-comprehensive workbooks, and an in-depth, easy-to-follow course! Stay tuned for the launch…
Rereading an old friend
This weekend, I reread one of my favorite books, A Cup of Comfort for Teachers. Aside from the fascinating, hilarious, remarkable, touching, and sometimes gut-wrenching stories, I was awestruck by just how good they were from a technical standpoint. We can learn a lot from these stories, and from their authors – especially about description. Here are a few things I observed:
Grab your audience from the get-go
One of the areas I will be discussing in Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked is beginning your book, story, article, or memoir with a bang; grabbing the reader from the get-go.
Many of the authors in A Cup of Comfort for Teachers chose to begin their story with a description of the main character: “Diana had scraped knees and wore a too-large-for-her-body dress created from feed-sack calico when we entered the school on the country road outside of Macon, Missouri.” Some opened with dialogue: “‘Ow! Ow!’ I shouted as I broke my jump rope rhythm and tangled my feet in the slack rope. ‘Something in my shoe is biting me,’ I wailed.” And still others opened with a piece of information that whets our appetites and leaves us with anticipation with regard to how the rest of the story will unfold: “I had just opened my classroom door to the balmy spring afternoon when a woman entered and surveyed the bustling crowd of kindergarten children, my aide, and several volunteer mothers.”
All three of these opening techniques are worthy of adding to our arsenal of descriptive techniques.
Don’t spoon-feed your reader
Most of the authors in A Cup of Comfort for Teachers Showed without moralizing; readers are allowed to draw conclusions for themselves. The impact that these teacher-heroes have had on their students’ lives shines through without our having to be Told: “I made an impact on this child” or “This teacher had a tremendous impact on me.”
Many of the writers focused their story on only one or two students. They gave us an intensive look at the complexities that make up a kid’s world. But the truths that emerge are universal. I was astonished how one story about one kid experiencing one incident could give me such a clear picture of the teacher. No need for the author to recount a whole list of teacher successes or student events in order for us to understand what the author is trying to express.
Retain your focus
Relating one incident or discussing one student or teacher brings me to another important element in writing: focus.
Focus is vital with a blog, for example. The best way for readers to absorb the information presented in a blog post is for the blogger to concentrate on just one aspect of a subject, whether the blog is about writing, finance, speech therapy, or race cars.
Likewise, in memoir, share one swatch of your life’s tapestry and describe it in depth – and perhaps comment briefly on how it has impacted you or informed your behavior even today. Counterintuitively, focus creates a larger world for your readers. It’s easier for them to relate your experiences to their own lives.
Along with focus, you do need thoughtful attention to detail about that one particular subject. Readers need more than just an entertaining or uplifting few minutes. Details draw readers into your world, or into the world of your characters.
But of course, you need balance. Don’t go overboard with unnecessary details. Make sure every word counts.
Describe, but then get out of the way
The best descriptive writing presents the information and then allows the reader to come to conclusions him- or herself. As the author, you get to decide what you’d like your readers to take away from the piece, but it’s important to allow them to figure it out on their own. This is the writing goal you want to work toward.
Tell your story, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, memoir, a cookbook – anything. Use words that will convey to the readers exactly what you mean; I like to call them “industrial-strength” words. Focus on some of, but not all, the details. Guide your readers: enable them to experience and feel what you intended. And then get out of the way and give your readers room to have the experience and identify with the subject, or with you.