Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Judgments and Judgment Calls

Merciful heavens, it snowed again last night. I suppose it might be possible to view such an event in one of two ways. Egad, more dad-blasted snow on top of an inch of sleet? Or, perhaps, Oh, how pretty! And much less than the forecast called for; aren't we lucky?

A mighty force is the attitude, as is the adjective. How a person, place, or thing is presented can have lasting impact on the mind of the reader; the power can be used for good or ill. Consider the coat that I spied last week, pieced together from what appeared to be upholstery leftovers. I could tell you that it was a cabbage rose-printed nightmare direct from the diseased imaginings of a demented seamstress. On the other hand, I could also say that it was an eye-catching design that made clever use of found fabric.

You see? Our descriptions have power. A wise author will choose the most important detail as a focal point, letting the rest flow from there. The CMOS warns against using any language that might bias the reader, emphasizing the need for “people first” language. In other words, identify the person first, the characteristics second. The Catholics are hosting a dinner doesn't sound quite as friendly as The members of the Catholic church are hosting a dinner.

Think of your descriptors as a reverse form of the address on a letter. Start broadly, adding necessary details that help pinpoint a particular character. I’m looking for a man, tall and of medium build, with brown hair, gray eyes, and a denim jacket with a guitar-shaped patch on the pocket. Such a description is clear, basic, and allows your readers to form their own opinion. If it’s that kind of story, you might mention the freckle on his backside or his penchant for silk socks, but that’s a different manual entirely.

Well, it’s time to go and shovel the walk. Shall I look at it as good exercise and a chance to treat myself to some hot cocoa, or is it another example of Midwestern winter drudgery? You decide. While you’re at it, leave an example of your favorite (or not-so-favorite) use of adjectives. Frank? Flowery? Do share! In the meantime, have a lovely week, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Faced with yet another erratic Midwestern winter, The Style Maven is laying in supplies of heavily caffeinated "antifreeze." You can read about the adventures of her alter ego on The Procraftinator page here.


  1. I'm not fond of writing descriptions, since as a reader I tend to gloss over them. But I try to make sure everything in the book reflects the POV character's vocabulary. I prefer straightforward whenever possible. Which is why I'm NOT a happy reader with the very "literary" book my book club chose for this month. It might be beautiful prose, but I'm slogging through it trying to get to an actual story. Or a character I give a flying fig about.

    1. I agree with you. I hate trying to plod through prose, no matter how beautiful, if nothing is happening. I'm not saying people shouldn't write it; I just don't enjoy reading it.

  2. I like descriptions, but like Terry it's best when seen through the character POV - like the fabric example.

  3. I have to disagree with the CMOS on this one. Description done well is the delicious cream filling in your favorite flavored cake. Your POV characters are defined by how they view people and things. They should always have an opinion. Otherwise, you risk pedestrian prose with bland descriptions. Just avoid sickening purple prose.

  4. Good stuff, Ms. Maven. As to coping with the winter weather, I'll paraphrase what Kurtz told Captain Willard about dealing with the atrocities of war in Apocalypse Now, "... you must embrace the horror ..."

  5. Great post! The writer can definitely color the reader's view of a person or scene simply by word choice. With that in mind, we can avoid writer intrusion by making sure those words reflect the personality and views of the POV character and not those of the writer.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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