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Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 12:15 am
by glorybee
This week’s topic is overly-descriptive writing—avoiding what some people call purple prose and writing descriptions without using too many adjectives and adverbs.

I’m going to start by having you read two excerpts from classic literature:

1. Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

1. I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

Now that you’ve read the two passages, which one would you say is overly-descriptive? I suspect that most of you are thinking it’s the second one, which certainly has an awful lot of adjectives—in many cases, the writer uses two or more adjectives just to describe one object.

The other passage, however, has adjectives and adverbs, but the writer also uses nouns and verbs very effectively to convey a sense of place (and the people in that place).

So…the second one’s not as good as the first one, right?


They’re both wonderful descriptive passages, written by two of America’s finest writers (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mark Twain, Two Ways of Seeing a River.)

That’s the problem with some of these lessons—I can give guidelines or rules for good writing, but sometimes great writing breaks all of the rules. So I’m going to get up on a soapbox for a bit, and then I’ll give you some ideas for writing without being overly descriptive.

I really believe that in order to become a good writer, you have to be a good reader. And by good reader, I don’t merely mean that you’re a person who can read with comprehension at a high school or college level. You need to practice reading like a writer—analyzing effective passages to understand why they work, recognizing writers who break the rules in order to make a point, understanding the writer’s voice. Unfortunately, in this day when anyone can publish anything, there’s an awful lot of junk out there. It does no good to be a voracious reader if what you read is less than excellent. That’s why I wholeheartedly recommend reading well-established, classic literature (if you haven’t already done so). Google “100 books” and you’ll be taken to several lists of great books—and get started.

You may feel that I’ve gone off-topic: what does this have to do with overly-descriptive writing? Well, take a look at that Twain passage again. It has dozens of adjectives, and one sentence in the middle with 144 words, but I doubt that anyone would say it’s overly-descriptive or would fault him for the run-on sentence. But if you were relying on rules about adjectives or run-on sentences, you might say that this is a poorly-written passage.

However—with a sigh, I’ll admit that there are some things that emerging writers can do to make their writing better when it comes to the use of modifiers. For this part of the lesson, I’ll take you back to school—maybe late elementary or junior high--and you’re working on a Language Arts assignment. The worksheet has lots of simple sentences, and the instructions say to “make the sentences more interesting” by adding adjectives and adverbs. So you see

I walked ____________ to the _____________ house with my ______________ dog.

…and you dutifully write:

I walked slowly to the little house with my fat dog.

“Congratulations,” your teacher says. “You’ve written a more interesting sentence.”

But you haven’t—not really—and yet this sort of exercise goes on every day in English classrooms and home schools.

Just adding adjectives and adverbs won’t necessarily make your writing better—and it might make your writing worse. I submit that this sentence:

I trudged to the cottage with my pug.

…is far more interesting than the one with the adjectives and adverbs. Not only that, this sentence has much more imagery—the reader can visualize the action of trudging, which is different from other kinds of slow walking (shuffling, ambling), she can visualize a cottage, which is different from other kinds of small houses (huts, bungalows), and she can visualize a pug, which is different from other kinds of fat dogs (bulldogs, French mastiffs).

So here’s your lesson in avoiding over-descriptiveness: In many cases, choose, strong, specific nouns and verbs instead of adjective + noun or adverb + verb combinations.

Please don’t think that I’ve just told you never to use adjectives or adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are wonderful parts of speech, and they can certainly be used to make your writing more interesting. Just don’t rely exclusively on them, despite what your 8th grade English teacher told you to do.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Harper Lee passage again, this time with some of the effective words highlighted: nouns (red), verbs (blue), and adjectives (green). You can see that well-chosen words of several parts of speech can be effective in description.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

And now for a message:

The last few lessons have received very low participation. It appears that people are reading them, but hardly anyone is posting responses or doing the homework. Please tell me how I can make the lessons a better learning experience for you. I can’t improve without your feedback, and I want to post lessons that are helpful for your writing. I get all paranoid and start to hide in the corner when I feel that people dislike the lessons—and it’s cold and lonely in the corner.

Another note: I'm leaving Friday, Feb. 6, for a weekend writers' retreat where I'll largely be offline. I usually post these lessons on Saturdays, but I'm pretty sure that won't happen next week. I'll either post the next lesson before I leave for the retreat on Friday, or it won't get posted until Monday, Feb. 9.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 12:50 pm
by rcthebanditqueen
Ooh, description! My favorite thing! As well as my worst enemy... :mrgreen:

Aw, no homework? Shucks... :violin And here I was all excited to paint the town purp... I mean...wait...what? *cough* :lol:

Seriously, though, when I look at the first original draft of my first manuscript (which has since gone through many drafts), I see the adjectives and adverbs and over-descriptiveness (like the Twain passage, but with the incoherency of someone having sniffed furniture polish :mrgreen: ) and secretly cringe.

I was reading an article (can't remember where) where someone mentioned choosing tighter, more punchy words as opposed to *more* words, like you were saying, Jan. They were saying that every time you add another adjective or adverb, the effect of the image is weakened. (Maybe not in all cases.) I have been practicing that too lately. With my most recent Challenge entry (hoping it's okay to link since you didn't ask for homework...) ( ... p?id=50112), I wrote it purposely because I've been missing writing descriptions of pretty outdoorsy scenes (especiallydesertsCOUGHHACK), and I wanted to play a little and stop trying so hard to write perfectly. My Challenge buddies all said that they saw the word pictures very vividly, so that was a major :superhappy moment.

I am glad you mentioned reading like a writer. I signed up for a Christian publisher book review thing where they send you a book for free if you post a blog review. This month I read a crime thriller that...I wanted to throw into the wall. The prose I found very telly and not showy. But the worst thing was, it was filled with typos and misplaced modifiers. GAH! *face twitches violently* I don't understand how grammatical errors made it past the editors!! (My inner grammar Nazi wonders how it made it past the first draft, but maybe that's mean of me...) But... This is a published book with these typos!! *runs screaming down driveway as brain threatens to explode*

In fairness, I was also reading it with an eye to "when I see something that turns me off as a reader, where have *I* done that in my own work?" It helped me pick out my own tell vs. show issues.

Please, please don't go hide in the corner! I love the lessons! I have just been too timid to participate. I know, I know, I shouldn't be hiding in my own corner... :brrr :sofa

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 2:03 pm
by glorybee
Rachel, thanks for the link. The descriptions in that entry work well--I think because you use fresh and interesting words, and also because they are broken up by actions and dialogue. Back when Twain was writing, readers were different, and long passages of pure descriptiveness such as his were the sort of fare that readers were used to. But today's reader has a shorter attention span, and doesn't happily read long passages of nothing but description.

Thanks also for the encouragement.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 2:22 pm
by Allison
See, I think I may have almost the opposite problem. I have said that when I write, it's almost like a movie is playing in my head. But that's really not quote right, because it's a really blurry movie. :lol: I couldn't write about the tall, thin, girl with flowing blond hair that wraps around her fact when the wind blows, because while I can SEE what my characters do, it's often just that... I really don't have very clear images of my characters or scenery. So any super descriptive writing would feel very, very forced to me. Even in my travelogue entry about the Grand Canyon, even though I could indeed still see the grand canyon, the descriptions I put in felt forced. I mean, as a woman, I'm "supposed" to notice appearance, right? Nope. Not me.

And I'll admit, I got a bit "lost" in the Mark Twain passage. Beautiful writing, I'll admit, but all I could "see" in my head after was the water, reflecting a red tint, a random sunset, and the path in the woods. I'm not sure what that says about me... :)

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 3:59 pm
by Anja
Whenever I want an example of exceedingly purple prose, I think of Jean Auel's Plains of Passage. I'm positive dear Ms. Auel describes every leaf and twig and moment of development of the Danube River and valley. Until that book, I was addicted to the Earth's Children series, but after 1000 pages of what read like wading my eyes through molasses and glue, I couldn't fathom reading any subsequent books.

Contrast that to the book I am reading now. City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy. (Paris during the Revolution.) Her writing style is very choppy--short sentences, to the point, with not a whole lot of purple-ness or even faintly violet. But when I "come up for air," I am astonished that I am not wet or covered with street muck or wood smoke or blood. It is real; it is atmospheric.

I had a dear friend in Junior High who was well-known for her descriptive prose, but that was back in the last millennium before purple prose was discovered (though invented), and she never used one adjective or adverb where five or six would do. Teacher loved her.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 6:46 pm
by glorybee
Ann, could you find a representative passage from City of Darkness, City of Lightto share with us?

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 8:16 pm
by Shann
First, Jan, let me sincerely say, I would not be where I am today without your help. I've grown so much as a writer because of you, but also as an editor and critiquer. I remember when you did this lesson a few years ago and referred to them as Salsa Words. I still use that phrase when I'm giving constructive feedback. The other thing I remember is you told us to write down the first 5 ideas when we see the topic, then wad up the paper and throw it away. I suggest that to newbies all the time.

I also try to tell people about your thread, and that it is the best way to learn. I remember when I was new, you commented on my story giving me positive and constructive feedback. Then you said you had a thread on the boards. It meant so much to me that you gave me constructive feedback while still complimenting my work. I immediately checked it out. I know it takes a lot of time to read the challenges and still do all the other things I you do. I try to encourage the newer writers, but unfortunately, circumstances haven't allowed me as much time to do it as I used to. I'm hoping that things have calmed down more now and can start reading more challenges. If more people could do that, I think it might direct people to come here. Also, perhaps some of us who make the rounds in the Critique Circle could recommend that people participate in this thread. I try to tell everyone who asks for my advice. This thread is definitely one of the best writing perks anywhere in the world and it's open to everyone and it's free!

Perhaps, you can ask some older members who routinely leave feedback on the challenge to encourage people to check out the thread. I wish it were possible to make a direct link in the comments because I think people would be more likely to check it out if there all they needed to do is click on it. I'll try to do more feedback both in the challenge and the Circle and continue to encourage people to check it out. Perhaps you could also put a link in the brick throwing thread too. People who post there are looking for feedback and might click on your link while they are in the frame of mind of improving.

Sending you Hugs and an encouraging tug to pull you out of the corner. :grouphug

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sun Feb 01, 2015 1:01 am
by A Softer Voice
Hi, Jan

I enjoy stalking your forums. Thank you for the great teaching! :book2 :sofa

A Softer Voice

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sun Feb 01, 2015 2:19 am
by TracePezzali
Hi Jan

Please do not halt writing these amazing lessons. I read them all, and if I don't respond, it's only because I can't think of an example, or am busy with the challenge article. Perhaps the genre series received more feedback only because we were faced with new styles and we were screaming for further advice (aaarghhh heeelllppp) The current lessons give us incredibly important food for thought as we apply them to every bit of writing we do. So I'm sure everyone's writing with your advice in their conscience.

I'll take the opportunity to write it here: this series on the seven deadly sins has been incredible! I review all the bible scriptures and read commentaries before I begin, and have been personally challenged assessing sin in my own life. It's great that we are being confronted with our own nature in this series.

For example, I was amazed that biblically, gluttony is linked so often to the larger problem of laziness, being idle, sense of entitlement, loose morals, unrestrained living (which is why I put emphasis on this in my challenge piece... teehee... a piece more suitable probably to this weeks topic) that it makes me wonder further what a person has to compete with when they address overeating. Sometimes it may be food addiction, other times it is much more complicated - but sin is like that! Merging seamlessly into other forms of sin.

Anyway, I've digressed, but my point was - DON'T STOP and FANTASTIC TOPICS THIS QUARTER.


Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sun Feb 01, 2015 2:29 am
by TracePezzali
Umm, another thing I wanted to say was not to do with this topic, but I'm including it here because I know this forum gets a lot of traffic. I'm not sure if I'm overstepping boundaries, but I wondered if people can leave more comments on the individual challenge entries.

We all work so hard every week on perfecting the craft, and the stories get read by a lot of people, but only a few make comments. I think it would be a great encouragement to everyone if more comments were made.

With our work being edited in our buddy groups, it is so incredible the difference it makes to the finished product. Generally, comments have a very positive impact. I think a writer's ego is quite fragile (speaking personally anyway) and at times we doubt our ability and whether it's worthwhile to push on. We all get a thrill when we see an email that someone's read our piece.

There are a number of people who consistently make the effort, and my deep appreciation goes out to them. A sincere thanks.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Sun Feb 01, 2015 8:20 am
by KatKane
I have to say, I agree with Tracy. I hold my hands up this, too. Reviewing other people's work, as Jan said in the lesson, is something I can definitely do more of to improve my own work as well as encouraging and helping others. The ethos of encouraging and learning together was one of the things that drew me to joining this site in the first place. It would be awful to let that slip away.

Same with your lessons, Jan. I'm sorry I have not participated as often as I should. It's not your fault or down to anything about the lessons; it's mine for not taking the time to engage with them. I've learnt huge amounts from these lessons, the last two especially have really helped me, not just as a writer but as an editor.

Tying the two points together, maybe some of us need a lesson (or refresher) on how to critique, and perhaps instead of failing to give up chocolate for lent this year, I'll set myself a challenge to review at least 10 challenge entries per week. And participate more actively in lessons.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Mon Feb 02, 2015 10:38 pm
by Anja
Jan, I'll try to sit down and write an excerpt.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Thu Feb 05, 2015 2:22 am
by zacdfox
Oh Jan! I just finished playing catch-up on your lessons after a busy two weeks and was sad to see your note a the end! I'm particularly new to faith writers but I must say, your lessons are one the things that have me popping in every day. (I read your lesson on characterization 4 times and learned more every time) That and my critique circle partners (shout-out to Trace and Alan) Come out of that lonely corner, Jan! You are a blessing!

If you want to change anything you could give more homework! Or letter grades for those who turn it in? Maybe a grand assignment at the end of a quarter, that requires the application of several or all lessons?

Honestly, you're doing a wonderful job as is but I'd love to see more user participation so I'm offering my best suggestions.

PS- put caution tape across that lonely dark corner...

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Thu Feb 05, 2015 3:10 pm
by Anja
Here's a brief excerpt from City of Darkness, City of Light. (Marge Piercy)

"From her room that opened onto the street she could hear the roar of Paris, the clatter of hooves, the rolling of wheels on uneven stones, the cries of peddlers, pigeons, dogs, children screeching, horses neighing, the bray of a donkey, the clatter of a bucket being winched up. The stench was strong. The innkeeper said that when the wind blew from the great dumping ground of garbage and human waste outside the city, that smell was the result."

Three adjectives. No adverbs.

And another.

"The winter she turned fourteen, the winter of 1781, she remembered those deaths. It was bitterly cold. The Seine froze over. The wheat barges and the wood barges could not come in, and people died every night of the cold. Their bodies lay waiting to be picked up and stored for burial. The ice was filthy with offal and sewage and excrement. The sound of coughing filled the house... The price of bread soared. Beggars were everywhere. Dead babies lay on the steps of the church, foundlings who froze before they could be taken in."

A few more adjectives, but an example of the "choppy" style I mentioned. Short sentences, sparse descriptions, but so evocative.

Re: Be a Better Writer--Description (Kind Of)

Posted: Thu Feb 05, 2015 3:19 pm
by glorybee
Thank you so much, Ann! What a joy those were to read!