Really effective description doesn’t rely on the “laundry list” method. You know, what you often read in popular fiction when a character enters a room - a detailed listing of what the room looks like, or a physical description of a character. And just because some well-known and successful writers handle description that way, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best way.
It’s one way, and perhaps the easiest way, but not the best way.
I learned to go for the best way of doing something when I was a kid. My father and I were fixing up an old bike, and it was my job to sand the frame for painting while he worked on the rest of it. I started with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, but it was hard, hard work and I soon tired of it. So the day I presented the frame to him for painting, he noted the spots of rust that I had ignored. He said we could paint it that way if I wanted to, but the paint would probably flake off. If I wanted a really good paint job on my bike, I should take the time to prep the frame properly.
He didn’t force the issue; he just presented the facts and let me chose for myself.
That lesson has served me well in a lot of ways, and I think of that bike every time I am working on a second draft of a novel and I’m tempted to let those easy, first-draft efforts stay. “Readers will certainly skim over the so-so writing,” I tell myself. “They’ll be so caught up in the story they won’t mind.”
Well, readers do mind. Sure they might skim over the laundry lists because the story and the characters are compelling – I do that every time I read Jonathan Kellerman – but that doesn’t mean readers like to do that. It may even catch them up for a moment and pull them out of the story.
If I am going to catch up a reader and make them pause, I’d rather do it because of a particularly nice piece of writing, like this from Dark Horse by Craig Johnson: “I took a swig from the canteen. It tasted like a Civil War mud puddle.”
He could have written: “I took a swig from the canteen. The water was foul and nasty tasting.” That would have gotten the job done, and isn’t bad writing at all. But writing it the way he did made a stronger impact on my senses, which is what we want our descriptions to do to connect to the readers.
Maryann Miller is the Managing Editor of WinnsboroToday.com, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for Bloggernews.net and ForeWord Magazine. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.