I thought today it would be fun to talk about my least favorite things in prose that bog down both story and readability. Inexperienced authors tend to do this. Can you guess what it is? Probably not because I’m being super vague LOL … hey, maybe that’s it! Being too vague. Nope, but that’s a discussion for another day. This habit drives me, your intrepid editor, crazy: too much attention to unimportant minutia or details.
I saw this discussion on one of my social media groups. The question: should you describe someone’s clothes in a scene? A very good question and the answer is: yes, but don’t go too far. Actually, that answer applies to all setting descriptions – yes, but don’t go too far. The “too-far” part of the answer is the minutia. When describing people’s appearances, for example, it’s good to be straightforward to give an idea of the person’s looks and how he/she comes across in a scene. So, let me give you two examples.
Bad: She was attractive when she wasn’t in her stern counselor mode. Her medium-length brown hair hung past her shoulders and had golden highlights and a few stray strands curled up. She wore a little makeup and base with a hint of pink blush and clear-colored lip balm with her eyelashes tipped in mascara. She didn’t seem to care about making herself up too – she felt the inner was more important than the outer.
Good: She was attractive when she wasn’t in her stern counselor mode. Her medium-length brown hair hung just past her shoulders, but she always kept it in a low ponytail. She wore little if any makeup, and she didn’t seem to care about outer stuff anyway.
Now let me break it down. Why is the first one overdone? Read them both and ask yourself, “Did I really need all those details to understand Sandra’s personality? Did I need to know she wore base and blush and tipped her lashes in mascara? Or did the scene work just fine to know she “wore little if any makeup” and that was enough to tell you that this woman doesn’t obsess over looks? The point in that description is what? To know how she applies mascara? Or to know that she’s more concerned with inner work on one’s self? The latter is the answer, and the latter is achieved in the brief description.
Want to learn a great technique? When I was a junior in college I took this great English class. We did a fabulous exercise. Take a sentence and keep cutting it down without robbing its meaning. Here we go…
brown hair hung just past her shoulders, but she always kept it
in a low ponytail.
Her brown hair hung past her shoulders, but she kept it in a ponytail.
I’m not proposing you take all of the “color” out of your writing, but this exercise will help you sharpen your writing. I like and encourage writers to shortcut descriptions by using specifics. Using specific references will pull the reader right to the vivid idea. For example, instead of saying “soda” use “Pepsi”. Most of us know and relate to what is a Pepsi. Want to make a point that your character watches her/his weight? Make it “diet” Pepsi. Now I’ve not only said what the character drinks, but something about their weight concerns.
Those three little tips – cutting down the descriptions, editing out extra words, and adding specific details – will instantly take your writing to the next level. Whether you’re an author or just write letters, my tip about cutting out words will also impress your co-workers and boss. Easy-to-read and understand and straightforward writing comes across more professional. As I suggested, try it. Take a few sentences and ask yourself about each word this one question:
Do I really need THAT word to make my point? If the answer is no then cut it.
And that’s Friend-Os is English class with Michelle. Do you want to learn everything I’ve been taught between my formal education and years of hands-on experience? Hire me as your book coach. It’s private lessons in writing. You can call me today at 916-300-8012 or reply to this email.