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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to be Red

The red light reddened the red room ... redly. It was very red.

Have you ever sat there reading a novel when you were suddenly jolted out of the experience by a description so inarticulate or inane that you have to stop, stare at the page and wonder if that really just happened?

Probably. If not, pay more attention. It will happen.

The fact of the matter is, even good writers have bad writing. It's the job of a good editor to catch it before it makes it out into the world. But there are a lot of words in a novel, and many opportunities for something to slip through the cracks.

So how do we avoid this bad writing?

The non-answer is: diligence. But that's such a non-answer I don't even know why I wrote it. Diligence? Really? Thank you, now all of my problems are solved.

The problem with just saying "diligence" is that it's not instructive -- it's telling you to constantly have a quality of hyper-awareness. Yes, this would solve the problem. But it is also impossible. If we are on guard for the entire writing process, nothing will ever get written. Nothing new will be able to make it's way past the guard we've hired in our heads. We'll be constantly alert, and nothing will happen.

Bad writing comes in many forms, but today I just want to focus on one part: descriptions. Besides clunky antecedent situations or overly abundant prepositional phrases, descriptive statements are where writers have the most potential to fall on their authorial faces. It's also one of the problems that has a somewhat easy solution that isn't a snore of a grammar lesson.

The problem many writers face when describing something is how to do so originally. We are taught to observe something with our five sense (a "fact" I firmly rebuke, Aritstotle!*) and use this in our writing. I think everybody did that project in elementary school where they looked at something and made a poem about how it looked, sounded, smelled, felt and tasted. You probably definitely did. Look, that's fine for getting started. But without the right words it's also burgerflipping-boring.

Let's take a gander** out our rhetorical window right now. Oh look. It's such a sunny day! The sky is blue! The grass is green! The sun is bright and warm! The birds are chirping! The air is fresh! There is a breeze blowing!

I'm falling asleep!

Okay, I'll put in more effort.

The sky is blue and the air is fresh above the green grass on a bright and warm sunny day, as the birds are chirping in a blowing breeze.

I'm still snoring.

Why? I followed the rules, right? I used my senses to observe and describe the pretty day, what could be wrong with that?

What's wrong with it is that I haven't actually told you anything new. You know the sky is blue on a sunny day. You know that grass is green. You know sunlight is warm. You know birds chirp. Air is fresh? Well bully for air! It's a sunny, green-grassed, warm bird-chirpy day -- of course the air is fresh!

Let's look back out that window.

A breeze carries ribbons of sun-warmed birdsong over the nodding heads of springy grass shoots.

Both statements are descriptive. We know that it's warm, that there is grass and a breeze. If anything, the first example hands over more information: fresh, green, bright, blue, sunny. But the second statement doesn't just lay a world at our feet. It's an interactive world, that acts upon itself as much as us. The breeze sin't just blowing pointlessly; it is carrying birdsong, it is moving the grass. The birds are just chirping -- they're singing a song because the sun is up and it is warm. While we may not know that the sky is blue or the grass green or the air fresh, because the words encourage action we are more compelled to actively imagine the blueness and freshness of it all simply because it is warm and breezy and grassy.

My tip for creating more engaging descriptions, and better writing, is to make an effort to have the observed objects or characteristics interact with each other. Verb-ify your adjectives. Let qualities lead to one another. Don't just glance at the object like the subject of some medieval poem and give us a topos top-to-toe description. Oh, is her hair red? Perhaps it flaming from her scalp, or is reddening her skin with the reflected light. Maybe it's the neon skin of dragonfruit encasing the pale speckled flesh of her face.*** Just find a new and interactive way to tell me that it's red.

*Research tells me Aristotle only cited 4 "wits". Even worse!
**Not the goose kind. Although if you have a gander in the house, you may want to take him outside. Unless there are housebroken ganders? Do people have gander pets?
***Metaphors and similes can be tricky: embrace them for what they are, but now that they can be downright ludicrous.

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