Have you ever written freestyle? If so, did a twist in words hurl you in a new direction? That often happens with descriptive writing. One tweak, and your story shifts.
Author Lee Childs rambles like a talk-show host without a guest. Too descriptive for me. Too freestyle without a fence. But that’s his style. Yet, structured writing stands still. I once structured essays with ten-page outlines. The essays then wrote themselves. But they lacked the edginess that stems from twists.
Edgy anecdotes bustle with description. I rarely used anecdotes in presentations or essays. But anecdotes liven writing—when relevant to your thesis.
And anecdotes gush with adjectives. But author Helen Sword says don’t use adjectives that repeat. Other authors say let the verbs, not adjectives, drive the story. But striking adjectives build stunning stories, don’t they?
So, when you edit, tweak your adjectives and descriptions. Yes, many authors do multiple rewrites. Some authors say they gloated after their fifth edit. But before the edits, they felt shame.
And edit your writing for style. In other words, edit for the three f’s: flow, finesse, and the five-senses. In my essays, I tweaked misspellings and bad grammar, but never aimed for style. One prof nagged, “If you don’t grasp style, then you’re not an A student.” Then she handed me an A-.
To learn style, read books such as Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style, and books by Roy Peter Clark. At the very least, skim Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. And remember: description spiffs style.
Monica Wood shares how to finesse with description in her book Description:
- What value do details lend your writing? “The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character’s inner landscape, his or her peculiarities, fears, and compulsions that cannot be easily explained. It is one thing to explain to your readers that a character is fearful, quite another to describe the way she shrinks from human touch” (pp. 6-7).
- When might you justify overdoing descriptions? Perhaps “the protagonist is a professor of aesthetics and war veteran at the end of his life, and the story’s lyrical descriptions are true to his view of the world” (p. 3).
- When might you minimize descriptions? “Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers … The old man’s carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up” (p. 6).
- When might descriptions alter your storyline? “If Frankie puts the garden book on the shelf and takes the sex book instead, then your story has to head down a different path altogether” (p. 8).
- And how do you make memorable descriptions? “Don’t tell the readers that Judy ‘looked sad,’ tell us about the shape of her mouth or the lifeless slats of her hair. Avoid details that call to mind anybody and use the ones that call to mind somebody” (p. 6).
- And use the five-senses: “Remember, you have four other senses to work with: taste, touch, smell, and sound. What your character smells and hears may be even more important than what he sees. A festooned riverboat (a feast for the eyes) might be easy and fun to describe, but the metallic taste in the captain’s mouth or the sulphurous odor of the water may be more important to the story” (p. 11).
- Lastly, tweaking your descriptions might twist your tales: “You may stumble across a detail that is so telling to you that it changes the direction of your story” (p. 8).
Scratching my noggin while reading Lee Childs, I wondered, “What’s the point with all his description?” I like to write minimally. Scriptwriting prompted that. So, I only care about the color of walls when they’re made of rubber. A paradox? I call it a creative spark!