This is the fourth in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 3.
In Part 3 I wrote about the importance of including vivid details in your writing and gave you an exercise to trigger sensory aspects of your memories. Afterward, you wrote lists of these remembered sensory details and revised your scene. I have no doubt that your scene was much more effective and that including concrete sensory details went a long way towards bringing your story to life.
Take your writing one step further by transforming your description from the mundane to the excellent. How? By expanding vocabularies in three areas:
- adjectives and adverbs
In this post, we’ll focus on using precise descriptive nouns and adjectives. In Part 5, we’ll discuss the importance of using strong (and precise) verbs, and in Part 6, we’ll launch into a discussion of metaphor and how it can take your writing to the next level.
So what exactly do I mean by “precise” and “descriptive”? I mean nouns that name an animal, plant, place, or object (hyacinth vs. flower), adjectives that evoke mood and help to move your story forward as well as describe your subject (petite vs. small), and adverbs that, when used sparingly, add to the picture you are creating with your words (exceptionally vs. very).
Ways to develop a precise, descriptive vocabulary.
I. Learn to read like a writer.
Analyze your favorite authors’ works — especially those of fiction writers — focusing on how they paint pictures with their words. What about their descriptions draws you into their stories and arouses your emotions?
As an example, I’m currently reading Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole. Proulx is a master of description. Opening the book at random, I can immediately find two good examples of descriptive passages:
On page 1, instead of writing something like, “It was a beautiful spring morning, the air filled with the earthy scents of desert shrubs and trees,” which might content writers less skilled than Proulx, she pulls us into the story with, “It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac.” (italics mine.) Notice how Proulx uses the word “roaring” as an adjective to evoke the feeling of that particular spring morning, how “green [is] in the sky,” and how the air is “spiced,” rather than “scented,” with specific and precise plant names.
Here is another example from pages 55-56. In developing the character of Francis Scott Keister, Proulx writes: “His handsome Santa Gertrudis cattle displayed rich mahogany coats and backs as level as the ground they trod. … The heifers were artificially inseminated with semen from champion bulls, turned out on newly sprouted winter wheat in the spring, carefully moved from pasture to pasture during the summer. Keister supplemented the grass with soy meal, beet pulp, molasses, sorghum and sweet-corn stover, corn, cottonseed hulls, beet tops, cannery waste, anhydrous ammonia, poultry packer by-products (including feathers), peanut meal, meat meal, bone mail, lint from the family clothes dryer.” (italics mine)
In this passage, Proulx names the cattle, as well as the exact type of wheat in the spring fields and the supplements added to their feed. And the adverbs used — “artificially,” “newly,” and “carefully” — are included because they add to Keister’s character portrayal.
- Take five of your favorite books from your bookshelf, open the first and scan it for a particularly descriptive passage that strikes you as powerful. Copy it into a notebook.
- Repeat this for each of the five books.
- Take some time to analyze the writing for each of the passages. Highlight all of the adjectives, nouns, and adverbs. How were each effective in adding to the story the writer was telling? What, in particular, works for you?
- Circle words you want to add to your vocabulary. To help you remember these words, write sentences using one or more of the words in your notebook and then make a point of incorporating those same words into your writing as appropriate.
II. Revise using a variety of writing resources.
I confess that I don’t understand writers who say they hate revising, because, in my mind if you love writing, you love revising. I’ll go one step further: revising is writing. The first draft is not art, it’s a rough sketch upon which your art is based. Sure, some writers manage rough sketches that are pretty darn good to begin with, but they’re rarely the finished product.
Some of my favorite descriptive writing resources:
In addition to my standard Roget’s thesaurus and other online resources, my favorite resource for a descriptive vocabulary is — hands down — WritersHelpingWriters.com. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have compiled an incredible collection of thesauri for everything from colors to character traits and emotions.
Other online resources include a Flower Glossary; a Reverse Dictionary for when you know what a words means, but can’t remember the word itself; and a great resource for links that will help you research details related to a specific place and time in history.
Bookshelf resources to enhance description include:
- Roget’s Thesaurus and Roget’s Thesaurus of Phrases
- The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary (Don’t know what something is called? This dictionary of pictures will tell you.)
- All three thesauri by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglis, excellent resources to help with characterization.
Putting it into practice — Baby Steps:
- Select an object. Set a timer for five minutes and, during this five minutes, focus all your attention on your selected object. Observe it carefully. How does the light play off it? What is its shape and color? Touch it. If possible, hold it in your hands. How does it feel? Is it weighty or light? What is its texture? Smell it. Taste it. Does it have a sound? Does it evokes a memory or feeling?
- When the timer goes off, write a description of your object. Avoid bland, judgmental words, such as “lovely,” “beautiful,” “old,” “remarkable,” etc. These kinds of words are too general to be meaningful. Instead, use concrete details, such as smooth or slippery, and be precise — what kind of blue is it? Did the object remind you of something else? A memory or feeling? How did the object make you feel? Incorporate these details into your description. This is your first draft, so it’s okay to go with the flow. Write what comes to you.
- Now revise your description using descriptive resources such as a color or emotion thesaurus or by incorporating words gleaned from other authors’ works in the first exercise.