When beginning writers read flowing prose full of dazzling descriptions, they may think, “I’ll never in a thousand years be able to write like that!” They may grow depressed and consider throwing their computer off a bridge. Nobody is immune.
When you hear those thoughts, rest assured that your Inner Critic is the source, and that they are both true and false. They are true because our writing voices are as personal and unique as our speaking voices. You could study and practice that author’s style for fifty years, but you’ll never write exactly “like that.” Your challenge is to develop your own best style and message, not to mimic anyone else.
They are also false because writing dynamic description is a learnable skill. It takes practice and dedication. In my experience, a three-pronged approach has worked well to hone description skills to a keen edge. One prong involves reading, another involves awareness of surroundings, and the third is deliberation.
I am a purposely slow reader. I savor words and phrases as a gourmet savors flavors. I always have a pad of sticky flags at hand when I’m reading a novel or memoir so I can mark words and phrases I admire. Some books may sport only a few; others resemble a hairbrush. When I read an innovative description, I savor its richness, reading it aloud to practice the sound and feel of it, letting it sink deeply into my mind. I imagine, for example, Charles Frazier sitting in a trance at his keyboard, raptly engrossed in a scene he envisions for Cold Mountain. I see him reaching for scrap paper to doodle some thoughts before he finds the phrase that evokes a smile and nod of satisfaction: “the air … so damp it caused fresh sheets to sour under him and tiny black mushrooms to grow overnight from the limp pages of the book on his bedside table.” Wow! The pure genius of that dismal description gives me goose bumps!
After I finish the book, I head for my computer and type the flagged passages into a Word document. I review that file now and then for inspiration.
Turning to the second prong, awareness of surroundings, when something captures my attention, I often ponder ways to describe it. What is unique about its color, texture, shape? What does it remind me of? What metaphors or similes might work? I scramble up the side of my perceptual rut and stretch toward new ideas, relying on the tool I just mentioned — thinking about how other authors come up with phrases I admire.
Deliberation, the third prong, comes into play while editing. I challenge every sentence, seeking fresh ways of stating the ordinary and artful ways of arranging words. To borrow an example from Jennifer Stewart’s rollicking Writing Tips newsletter, our prehistoric ancestors might have bred by engaging in “Paleolithic passion.” Free association and visualization are the bedrock of this process.
This is art, and it has a musical component. Students of writing and literature hear a lot about a writer’s voice. We each develop our own, as unique and personal as our speaking voice. I may admire Rosamund Pilcher from daybreak to dusk, but my writing will never sound like hers. It won’t sound like Sue Grafton’s either, and certainly not like Steven King’s or William Zinsser’s. My writing will sound like Sharon Lippincott’s, as it should. My challenge is to continually strive to stay on pitch and in rhythm to keep my writing as crisp and clear as it can be.
Write now: scan the room around you and find one specific item that catches your eye, then write about it. Describe it in an unusual way and strive to involve two or three senses. Find other things to describe until you’ve covered all your senses at least a couple of times in several variations.
This post is excerpted from The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description, Sharon Lippincott, 2013
Photo credit: Rochelle
Sharon Lippincott is an evangelist for lifestory writing and memoir and the author of four books. Her most recent, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing Compelling Description, helps writers transform tales from blah to brilliant. She teaches writing courses online and in Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh Osher programs and cohosts the Life Writers’ Forum YahooGroup. She is founder of the Pittsburgh area WE WRITE! Creative Writing University and serves on the NAMW advisory board. She has been blogging at http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com since 2007.