Describing Description

Writing is just reading before it’s written to be read…. As a writer, I am concerned with what makes good writing. As a reader, you (and I) are also interested and affected by the quality of writing. While people will have different opinions about what represents good writing, most would likely agree that the quality of the writing–and therefore its effect on the reading– depends on good description. Even non-fiction suffers if it fails to bring the reader’s mind to some visual association with the subject. I have written for technical manuals and I have written fiction, stories. Each has its challenges and rewards. One thing they have in common, as far as I am concerned, is the need for good description.

My hand copies the pages that are turning in my head… Description in a technical manual does not carry the same purpose as description in a novel, as you can imagine. In a technical manual one might say something like Remove the red wire from the positive terminal by loosening the terminal lug (counter-clockwise) with a small Phillips head screwdriver. In a novel one might say something like Phillip rubbed shaky fingers across his damp forehead as he stared at the red wire. The screwdriver slipped in the grease and grit that covered his hands and now smeared his forehead like war paint. The smell of hot metal and plastic warned him to hurry. They did tell him it was the red wire, didn’t they? The former describes the steps in a process. The latter describes details for the purpose of drawing the reader’s senses into the scene. The task for a writer is to develop the appropriate type and amount of description without over doing or under doing it.

In fiction, dialogue mostly takes care of the sense of hearing for the reader, though some description is still needed to show meaning and sounds. Description brings the reader’s eyes, nose and emotions into the story. Both dialogue and description can be over used. The type of writing will dictate the proportion best suited. Some will say, for instance,  that literary fiction should be heavy on description and light on dialogue. Excessive, or what I call “manufactured” description can cause the reader’s eye to stray from the story and be drawn back to the writer. That is like having the narrator stop in the middle of the story and say, “Hey, I sounded pretty good right there, didn’t I?”

Some description is over the top on purpose. For instance, who doesn’t recognize a good private eye simile when he hears it? He was wearing his intentions like a cheap suit. She read his face like yesterday’s news. It isn’t the kind of subtle description I’m referring to, but I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Most good descriptive writing goes almost unnoticed as such.  A writer of fiction strives to craft details that give insight, context, a connection to the story. If crafted well, these bits of information take the reader beyond the facts to a sensation of inclusion, a recognition of discovery of something deeper. As Stephen King put it, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

He stared at the words he had just written like a drunk staring at an empty bottle…


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