Friday, September 18, 2009

Don't Use a "Laundry List"

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, an online community magazine, and a reviewer for 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.

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  1. I don't know if it was just me, but I think a lot of people, when they'r teenagers, suddenly discover adjectives (it's the time, around 12-14, when the vocab just blossoms), and they get really really excited about it, and they want to share what they've learned. It becomes fixed in our heads that using all these amazing new words makes our writing better.

    The only way of really getting out of that habit is to read lots of great books. Or I thought that was the case until I tried something out on myself. For me, the absolute master of description (and just about everything else) is Haruki Murakami. Because I wanted to make my writing better I decided to make a real study of how he does it. Before I started I would have sworn blind that he spent a long time on detailed description. But when I really lokoed, I saw he doesn't. He barely uses a single adjective. If he does describe something, he uses metaphor and simile (like the example you give).

    So I've modified (made stricter!) my opinion to: the only way out of the habit is to read great books WITH A FINE TOOTHCOMB and see how they really do it. I think the "one metaphor in place of ten adjectives" rule is a pretty good place to start though.

  2. If you find/use the perfect word to create a picture in your reader's head, you'll discover that you're using fewer words and creating a more powerful, spot-on description. That's been my experience.

    Straight From Hel

  3. Excellent advice. While editing my first novel I came across quite a few of these I had to cut out.
    ~ Wendy

  4. I'm with you on this one.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Excellent example of what you are talking about. Thanks.

  6. Excellent advice; don’t get hung up on your own laundry list. Thank you.

  7. Learning to write with few adjectives is an art. This is great advice, Maryann.

  8. Thanks for all the great comments. Dan, your response could be a blog in itself. :-)
    And I agree with you about reading all kinds of great books and studying them for how they work.

  9. Very nice advice. Thanks. And I love that Civil War puddle image.

  10. Great example, Maryann.

    And Dan, I have read the writing of the man you mentioned, but I think I'm going to buy a copy right now!

  11. Laundry list is a good metaphor for it!

    But it isn't always about adjectives. Well chosen, descriptive adjectives can sometimes do the job, too. And too many metaphors can come across as contrived, pretentious or boring...

    Personally, I try to find the one or two significant details that sums it all up, if I describe anything at all. If someone enters a room for istance, the question I ask myself is: what does this particular person see or notice? Why? What is significant to this person, given their interest, motives, state of mind at this point? Who or what is in the room that is/will be significant to the story?

    Sometimes there will be nothing in the room of interest, other than the persons already there. Then there will be no point in describing anything at all, but instead let the characters start to interact with each other right away.

  12. You have hit the nailon the head with the bike painting story!

    The writing process can be so frustrating at times that it is easy to see the allure of this trap.

    But how important it is to sand off every spot of rust.

    Readers may indeed skip over or forgive the odd bit of rust the first time around, but not for long, not forever.

    Thanks for a good reminder!

    Cheers, Jill

  13. What a good example with the "Civil War mud puddle"--that's fantastic!


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