Descriptive Paragraph #1

threadsCharacter descriptions are a key part of fiction writing. As with all description, a character description is most effective when a writer uses words sparingly. At Beaumont Hardy, I work with writers to fine-tune their character descriptions, keeping only those elements that contribute effectively to description.

The following is an unedited descriptive paragraph of a woman. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

She was a small, skinny woman with long, dull looking hair and thick, smudged glasses. Her clothes looked dark and shabby and made her look somewhat like a witch but without the broom or the black cat. She looked like someone who would be really mean or really unhappy, and she wasn’t wearing any jewelry at all. Her hands were bare, and Gordon wasn’t at all surprised to notice that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Who would want to marry someone like her? She looked like she wished someone would talk to her, but she was looking down at the floor, which made it difficult for Gordon to make eye contact. Her skirt was black and almost long enough to touch the floor, and she kept tucking her hair nervously behind her ears. Gordon rested his hands gently on the counter and cleared his throat for a moment. “Excuse me, Ms. Prince” he said quietly looking at her name tag. “I wanted to look at one of your files.” She looked up at him, and Gordon was very startled to see that her eyes were a clear, sparkling, bright blue.

After editing, the paragraph reads something like this:

She was a skinny woman with long, dull-looking hair and smudged glasses. Her clothes were dark and shabby and made her look like a witch, but without the broom or the black cat. She seemed mean or unhappy, and she wasn’t wearing any jewelry. Her hands were bare, and Gordon wasn’t surprised to notice that she wore no wedding ring. Who would want to marry someone like her? She looked like she wished someone would talk to her, but she stared at the floor, making it difficult for Gordon to establish eye contact. Her black skirt was almost long enough to touch the floor, and she kept tucking her hair nervously behind her ears. Gordon rested his hands on the counter and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Ms. Prince,” he said, looking at her name tag. “I wanted to look at one of your files.” She gazed up at him, and Gordon was startled to see that her eyes were a clear, bright blue.

What follows is the paragraph with its editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

She was a small, skinny woman with long, dulllooking hair and thick, smudged glasses. [I cut out two adjectives to eliminate the repetition of adjective-adjective-noun constructions in the sentence. I think “skinny” includes the idea of “small” and that “smudged” is more descriptive than “thick” and implies the same idea of ponderous glasses.] Her clothes looked were dark and shabby and made her look somewhat like a witch, but without the broom or the black cat. [Because she has no broom or cat, the idea of “somewhat” becomes clear without using the word.] She looked like someone who would be really seemed mean or really unhappy [I changed “looked like someone who would be really mean or really unhappy to “seemed mean or unhappy,” which eliminates several words but conveys the same idea.], and she wasn’t wearing any jewelry at all. Her hands were bare, and Gordon wasn’t at all surprised to notice that she wasn’t wearing a wore no [I’m trying to avoid the repetition of “wasn’t” in this sentence.] wedding ring. Who would want to marry someone like her? She looked like she wished someone would talk to her, but she was looking [Instead of “was looking,” could you say “stared,” so that you don’t say “looked” and “looking” in the same sentence?] down stared at the floor, which made making it difficult for Gordon to make establish [By using “establish,” you don’t say “made” and “making” in the same sentence.] eye contact. Her black skirt was black and almost long enough to touch the floor, and she kept tucking her hair nervously behind her ears. Gordon rested his hands gently on the counter and cleared his throat for a moment. “Excuse me, Ms. Prince,” he said, quietly [This adverb is unnecessary.] looking at her name tag. “I wanted to look at one of your files.” She looked gazed [I changed “looked” to “gazed,” so that you don’t repeat “looking,” “look” and “looked” in consecutive sentences?] up at him, and Gordon was very startled to see that her eyes were a clear, sparkling, bright blue [“Clear” and “bright” imply, “sparkling.”].

In general, a description is strongest when an author uses only a select few modifiers. In this case, the author has done a good job of creating well-rounded characters. Paring down the adjectives and adverbs reveals the characters and their actions more clearly.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

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One Response to “Descriptive Paragraph #1”

  1. admin says:

    Thank you. Please note my new post about dialogue.

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