Thursday, August 1, 2013

Using Description To Improve Your Writing

21,597… Yup, 21,597 words - ten different pieces - written and revised in four weeks and that doesn’t include my blog posts here and over at Alchemical Words. Add in the blog posts and the grand total for the month of July comes to…

34,934 words. I am exhausted. But happy.
What is felt like to write all that in four weeks

I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve written a lot of things that I’ll probably never share with anyone except my laptop and even my trusty Mactop probably groans at times with what it is required to keep in its memory.

Here’s what happened. I’ve been working on the end of my first really full-length novel but I began to get frustrated with my writing. I know it’s decent and probably even good but I didn’t think it was good enough so I took some online writing workshops.

These were decent but I found them to be superficial. If I had questions about more in depth topics, I was directed to another workshop then another workshop then another workshop with each giving me more superficial information. I wondered why, especially since I was paying for the blasted workshops, why somebody couldn’t just answer my damn questions. While I made some good friends, I always came away from the workshops frustrated. So I took the plunge and enrolled in classes at the university here in town.

I just finished my first creative writing class – ten pieces for a grand total 21, 597 words, a head full of knowledge and some serious feedback from an professor that knows what she’s doing - Lisa Lewis. She won 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry and has published about a gazillion pieces of poetry. She even has her own Wikipedia page. Not to shabby, eh? So, what did I learn?

One thing I learned is that, in my writing, I tend to do a lot of what I call blocking or giving stage directions. This character giggled. That character frowned. I was missing a lot of good opportunities to use detail and description. Was I being a lazy writer? No. But I was being an inattentive writer. A good writer pays attention and looks for these opportunities to give the reader details about a character.

Take the sentence:

Billy frowned. “I say we jump it,” he said.

Or:

“I say we jump it,” Billy said, frowning.

There’s technically nothing wrong with this sentence but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about Billy other than he’s not happy and wants to jump something.

What if it was something more like this:

“I say we jump it,” said Billy. He pulled off his baseball cap and scrubbed his fingers through the black stubble of the crew cut worn by all the men in Billy’s family. “Yup. It’s the only way.” He tugged the cap back on his head and spun it around backwards.


Maybe not perfect but we know a lot more about the character. We know he has black hair that he wears in a crew cut. We know he has number of men in his family - a father, brothers, and maybe uncles. We also know that this haircut is something worn by all the men in his family, suggesting maybe military or sports activities. We know he wears a baseball cap and that he uses it as a form of nonverbal communication, which might suggest that he either plays baseball or is a fan of the sport.

Definitely a whole lot more information is given here than in the first sentence. This is something we can all do to improve our writing. Watch for those places that give you a natural point at which you can expand your writing and bring the reader further into your world in dribbles and bits. I think it feels a whole lot more natural than resorting to long blocks of exposition and far more eloquent than simple stage directions.

What are your thoughts about ways to use description?