Posts Tagged ‘descriptive paragraph’

When to Stop Describing

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Description is one of the most difficult parts of writing. We’ve all read books in which the author over-describes someone or something–pairing every noun with an adjective and every verb with an adverb. The effect of over-description is often the exact opposite of what the writer intends; too much description slows down the reader and makes the description feel artificial. Instead of recreating the world through writing, an overly descriptive author manages to highlight the artifice of the work. The written piece feel less realistic and more like just a collection of words on a page.

What follows is an unedited descriptive paragraph. Immediately below it is the same paragraph, after editing. After both paragraphs is the same paragraph with my editing marks and my comments in brackets. In this particular case, the author has asked for a heavier edit, so I have changed some words.

She had wild, curly black hair that reminded Byron of an evil witch on a wild and stormy day, casting magic spells with clawlike hands and a cackling laugh. She seemed like she ought to be unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, the woman might actually be beautiful, if she would cut her hair or style it in a different way. She had deep, soulful brown eyes that you could hardly see because of her fierce frown and angry scowl. Byron noticed that she wore filmy layers of gauzy clothing that looked so voluminous that he could hardly tell what she was actually wearing. She seemed like the type of person to wear black or gray, but Byron was surprised to notice that she was actually wearing a soft and delicate white-colored tunic with bright turquoise pants. He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious, frightening and odd woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch casting a spell. She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored to realize that she had a melodious and bird-like voice. “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she trilled musically.

This is the edited paragraph:

She had wild black hair that reminded Byron of a witch in a storm, cackling and casting spells with her claw-like hands. The woman ought to have been unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, she might actually be beautiful, if she cut her hair or styled it in differently. She had soulful brown eyes that Bryon could hardly see because of her fierce scowl. Byron noticed that she wore layers of gauzy clothing so voluminous that he could hardly determine the shape of her body. She seemed like someone who would wear black or gray, and Byron was surprised that her tunic was a delicate white and that her pants were bright turquoise. He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch. She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored. “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she said musically.

This is the paragraph with my editing marks and comments:

She had wild, curly [Even thought “wild,” “curly” and “black” all effectively describe the woman’s hair, using only two of the words conveys the same idea more concisely.] black hair that reminded Byron of an evil witch oin a wild and stormy day, cackling and [Keeping the two verbs, “cackling” and “casting,” together creates a nice parallelism and trims the sentence down. The “laugh” following “cackling” seems unnecessary, since “cackling” already incorporates the idea of laughing.] casting magicspells with her clawlike hands and a cackling laugh. She The woman [After the talk of the witch, I’m just clarifying the identity of “she.”] seemed like she ought to have been unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, the woman she might actually be beautiful, if she would [The conditional “would” doesn’t seem necessary here.] cut her hair or styled it in a differentlyway. She had deep, soulful brown eyes that youByron [I’m keeping the focus on Byron, as the one doing the observing.] could hardly see because of her fierce frown and angry scowl [I don’t think that both “fierce frown” and “angry scowl” are necessary. You could also say “fierce frown” or “angry scowl.” I just picked the most descriptive noun and adjective.] Byron noticed that she wore filmy [“Filmy” sufficiently incorporates the idea of “gauzy.”] layers of gauzy clothing that looked so voluminous that he could hardly tell what she was actually wearingdiscern the shape of her body. [Because Byron has already described what the woman is actually wearing, it seemed like this sentence ought to end differently. You might also say, “could hardly tell what she actually looked like.”] She seemed like the type of person to someone who would wear black or gray, butand Byron was surprised to notice that she was actually wearingher tunic was a soft and delicate white-colored tunicwithand that her pants were bright turquoise pants. [I eliminated “notice,” because Byron had noticed her clothing in the previous sentence.] He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious, frightening and odd [Only one adjective seems necessary here, and based on the previous description, the woman seems more mysterious than odd or frightening.] woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch casting a spell. [Because Byron mentions spell-casting in the opening sentence, it didn’t seem necessary here.] She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored. [Ending the sentence with “floored” emphasizes Byron’s surprise.] to realize that she had a melodious and bird-like voice [“Musically,” in the next sentence, sufficiently gets across the idea of “bird-like” and “melodious.”] “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she saidtrilled musically. [“Trilled” is so associated with birds that it might tend to distract the reader.]

For more about “trilled” and other overly descriptive terms, please read my earlier blog post, “Precise But Distracting.”

I would be happy to help you with any descriptive paragraph-writing you need to do. I look forward to hearing from you.

Precise But Distracting

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I’ve recently noticed an odd trend in mass-market fiction–a tendency toward distractingly precise description. Believing that lively words will necessarily enliven their prose, some authors are liberally sprinkling their writing with words that are, admittedly, precise but that are also misleading to the reader. These words sometimes have the wrong connotations, or they simply offer far too much distracting detail.

At Beaumont Hardy, I fully support authors’ efforts to create vivid descriptions for their readers. However, description cannot exist for its own sake. It must serve the larger purpose of enhancing both plot and character. When description becomes so specific that it pulls the reader from the story, it may be time for an edit.

The following sentences illustrate the kind of precision I believe distracts a reader, instead of enlivening the story.

1. Fear scraped at her insides.

I see variations of this sentence in many current thrillers. “Scraped” is a wonderfully descriptive word, but it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to fear or to its effects. Does fear really scrape? I argue that a reader will stop to wonder what internal scraping feels like and whether this scraping is more characteristic of something other than fear–like a corrosive acid. This kind of reader distraction can destroy any plot suspense the author hopes to create.

2. His gaze collided with hers.

The notion of a collision is effective, in certain narrative situations, but it seems unrelated to the actual process of making eye contact. Readers all recognize the power of eye contact and the shock of an unexpected gaze. However, readers might have trouble imagining one look colliding with another one. Once again, readers are pulled from the story into irrelevant thoughts about ricocheting lines of sight and violently clashing eye contact–not what the writer wants at a moment of interpersonal tension.

3. The little girl launched herself into her mother’s arms.

“Launch” is an excellent descriptive verb, and it can clearly describe various actions. However, in this particular sentence, it conveys an action the writer might not have intended. Instead of suggesting a warm maternal moment, the word “launch” suggests the sudden movement of a projectile or the violent motion of a lion encountering an injured gazelle. It also connotes a long-distance leap more characteristic of a cheetah or an Olympic athlete than a little girl. Because of its violently athletic connotations, the precision of the term leads, I think, to more distraction than it does description.

4. The maiden gnawed at her muffin nervously.

Like launching, gnawing has very precise connotations, many of them rodent-related. Using the word “gnaw” to describe the relatively pleasant actions of a nice young woman seems incongruous and confusing. The reader may struggle with images of vermin, momentarily forgetting the trajectory of the story or the personality of the character.

5. “Get in the car,” the gentleman snarled.

Snarling is a very precise activity and one usually attributed to beasts of prey. When an author uses a word like “snarled,” instead of a more ordinary word like “said,” he or she must acknowledge the connotations of the word and consider whether these connotations are appropriate. In the case of the snarling gentleman, the author risks the temporary distraction of a reader who envisions werewolves or lions, instead of the fully human hero.

Accurate description is an art that I wholeheartedly support at Beaumont Hardy Editing. However, I recommend whittling away the kind of description that makes the wrong connotations and only serves to distract the reader.

If you have any concerns about your own descriptive passages and would like an expert opinion about them, please send them to me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Descriptive Paragraph #2

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Visitors to beaumonthardy.com often want to learn about writing more interesting and effective descriptive paragraphs. As any writer knows, descriptive paragraphs are important in both fiction and nonfiction, and a well-crafted paragraph can make the difference between mediocre and outstanding writing. Although writing coaches often suggest that the best descriptive paragraphs appeal to each of the five senses, I believe that successful description need not adhere to a sensory checklist.

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

The pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a narrow stone walkway that looked dark and damp in the moonlight. There were dim lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lap against the stone walls of the pool. The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around.

After editing, the descriptive paragraph reads as follows:

The two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them.  The narrow stone walkway separating the pools looked damp in the moonlight, and the dim pool lights made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which gently lapped against the stone walls of the pools. The air felt warm and damp, held in place as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the steamy water.

Below is the paragraph with my 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.)

The two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. [I added “two” so that I could simplify the sentence that follows.] There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a The narrow stone walkway separating the polls that looked dark and damp in the moonlight., [The imagery in this sentence is good, but it gets lost among too many words. I’ve pared down the sentence. In general, I think it’s best to avoid beginning a sentence—especially a descriptive one—with “There were.” In this sentence and the one that follows, I’ve altered the sentences so that they begin more actively and colorfully.] and tThere were dim pool lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. [I eliminated “in the pools” to get rid of the repetition of “in the.”] Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lapped against the stone walls of the pool. [“Seemed to” weakens the description. In this case, the water probably does, in fact, lap against the walls of the pools, right?] The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place  as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around. [This is a good, solid description. Eliminating a few extraneous words helps it read more powerfully.]

Let me know what you think of this edit. I would love to hear from you.

Descriptive Paragraph #1

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

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.]