Today’s guest blogger has one novel and three short fiction works out, and is a professional editor, journalist and blogger. And it’s her talent as an editor that colours her choice of topic. It took me a few days to find the time to open this piece after she sent it to me, but I’m glad I was relaxed when I read her words.
She offers some very good advice to writers like myself who seem to sparingly use description, and to those who want to know how much is enough.
I recently ran into an article online that really got me thinking. It concerns descriptive passages, or lack thereof, in modern writing. It occurs to me that modern writing likes to cut out a lot – description and other things. Many a modern writer argues in favour of expediency and practicality. I would argue that this attitude shows the writer’s captivity by a certain closed-mindedness that can inform his or her writing for the worse.
When I work with inexperienced writers as an editor, I often get the question: How much is too much? Writers wonder how much description to use (even before they have learned to do it skilfully and well); they wonder about whether to use adjectives and adverbs; they worry about too much characterization in lesser characters. In the last year or two, I notice it as almost a kind of mass paranoia, fed by some ridiculous blogs written by people with dubious credentials, advising writers to trim the language to the point of harming a perfectly good manuscript.
But before I talk about why this is a bad trend, let’s look at the reasons why this has become a trend.
- For non-fiction, and particularly journalistic writing, the tradition has been to write as succinctly and as briefly as possible. This originated in the pre-internet era, in the reality that print space in a newspaper or magazine was expensive to produce. In fact, it was – to a lesser extent – also true of hard-copy books, where more printed pages meant higher cost to the publisher.
- School teachers have emphasized tight writing. This is fine – they are, in a brief few years, trying to teach individuals to write anything from articles, to business letters and reports, to term papers. Many of the writing forms in which your average person will participate in his lifetime, involve being able to get to the point and make it clearly. Real creative non-fiction is rarely taught well, if at all, at the grade school level (no, that little short story you wrote in 6th grade doesn’t count).
- Many of us live in a society where faster is better, particularly in the West. Not only expediency, but efficiency, is all-important. We have no time to waste: whether getting in that report at work, sitting down to a meal with our busy families, or taking the fastest route by car (even on a day off!). Younger generations have never been exposed to the “stop and smell the roses” philosophy, and if they were, fail to grasp its meaning. Too many people expect shortcuts – college grads want a high salary right away, others want a management position with no experience. We crave instant praise and recognition. We don’t understand the value of giving time to talent and reward.
- The internet has changed time for all of us. Those who do web design for a living know the rule that if you can’t catch a visitor to the homepage for more than four seconds, they move on to the next click. Four seconds.
- Other communications technology. We now speak in acronyms as if it were always this way. Abbreviations rule our communications in text. We only rarely take time for an actual phone call. After all, it’s hard to multitask during an actual call, and we need to get things done now.
- Letterwriting is a lost art. It used to be that the letter was offered to the reader as an experience: it contained real description of scenes in the writer’s life, pieces of prose on the philosophy of life. Sentences were carefully designed for emotional effect. Beauty of language was cultivated for its own sake, and served as a testament to the author’s intellect, emotional intelligence, sensitivity toward the divine in life. Now, a short scrawled email, complete with typos, bad grammar, and half-sentences, is much more efficient and expedient. The change reflects a change in our way of thinking and relating to the world.
Virtually all writing with which we come into contact is somehow shortened, clipped and made as efficient as possible. This is so ingrained as a virtue, that we don’t know how to question its value as a virtue.
I am grateful to have attended what is arguably the best university for creative writing in the country. I majored in journalism and in literature/writing. This taught me, firmly, the difference between writing to disseminate facts (such as a journalist or a writer of non-fiction must do) and creative writing purely to entertain or encourage a mood or feeling or insight. They are very different beasts. I also tended to take electives which emphasized various eras in writing; I became accustomed to and respectful of the styles inherent in specific time periods. Because of this, I don’t tend to view current rules as worth very much; they’ll be gone tomorrow, because truly creative writers will challenge them.
Writing always reflects a current society’s mindset. The wisest, more innovative writers have the gift (or cultivate the ability) to see beyond the limitations of their time’s world view, and communicate ideas other than the ones they encounter daily. This might involve offering new philosophies, or it might include introducing new styles, in the technical sense. In either case, exciting writing happens because someone violates current standards and styles. And it happens only then.
Let me offer just a few examples.
James Joyce, the early-20th century novelist, shook up the literary world as no one else of his time. He dared to write about sexuality in a way no one had; moreover, he experimented with technical styles that jarred the writing customs of the day. Language was a mere clay in his hands, which he moulded in ways that the post-Victorian mind responded to in dramatic ways – most often with confusion at the deviation from the usual style. Most famously, he introduced to the literary world a style called stream of consciousness, which in his early and most famous work, Ulysses, invited the reader into the heads of characters like never before. Imagine the talk in established literary clubs, in literary circles and book salons! He was widely rejected as a pornographer and well . . . just a bad writer. But a few voices who recognized the genius raised him to wider exposure, and today he is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the modern age, his genius a given.
William Blake, the early-19th century poet, artist and philosopher. Blake violated many of the norms of poetry for his day. Specifically, he turned from the popular flowery, descriptive language and used sparse, almost childish language. But this was the genius: on the surface his work appeared extremely simplistic, but on a deeper level his simple words and images were metaphors for searing political critique. In his lifetime, it got him arrested, jailed and widely condemned. Now, he is considered one of the great literary and philosophical geniuses of his era.
Truman Capote, the mid-20th century writer. His docu-novel In Cold Blood changed literature forever, simply because of its daring technical style. Capote wrote not only what was the first major work on a true-life crime, but did it in a fictionalized style – sort of a mix of a true story and novel. This sounds quite boring to us now, since it is a style often employed (think of all the made-for-TV movies “based on true events”). Capote’s novel stunned the American public in its graphic nature, and its frankness regarding the brutality of crime. This was a subject discussed openly only with the most careful of discretion and only by the most qualified of persons (such as judges and law enforcement). For an average Joe to research it and write it all for public consumption was considered a prurient scandal. But it shook the literary world permanently.
What all these people have in common (and there are many more such examples) is that they wavered from what was the current rule of literary writing and tried something new – not for its own sake or shock value, mind you, but in order to create a form that would better convey what they wanted to say. Now this is the part you must take away as a writer: they did it without regard to commercialism. What’s more, these people were each visionaries in their times.
In many of my blogs, I touch upon the fact that every writer needs to make a choice about how much they will be influenced by commercialism, or by fame, or by the need to grow in skill. Each of us, in the end, chooses not between these three elements, but rather some balance of the three combined. Unfortunately, it is the rare writer who can both be commercially successful and a real innovative writer who influences other writers (God bless you, J.K. Rowling).
Modern writers decrying the use of elaborate description as “unnecessary” are the same people who fail to appreciate the value of writers such as Tolstoy, Dickens, or Austen – who raised description to an art. The view of these critics is a view from the tiny box of their own experience in their own era. Such description, in an era of more leisure for readers, when there was no television to aid in visual escape, was not only necessary but enjoyable. I suspect that their powers of imagination – in a time when visuals weren’t being constantly fed by media – were much more developed than is your average reader of today. Each of the persons in my examples was able to peer over the top of their box, into other possibilities, and act accordingly.
Meanwhile, I want to point out to naysayers as they look down their 21st-century noses, that some of the best books of the modern era also employ long descriptions which serve to take us into other worlds. Consider J.R.R.Tolkien. Consider the vast sales on Amazon of historical novels – the better of which all use a lot of description to convey the flavour of an era to hungry readers. I think of one commenter complaining of Dickens as being “unnecessary”, and wonder if she ever considered that the descriptions he left us have informed many a social historian about daily life in that era? I would think that is “necessary” and important! Again – the limitations of a narrow era-view.
This is my advice as an editor: If you are writing a modern story with a fast plot, such as a thriller or murder mystery, or a sex-driven romance, use less description. These are genres in which you want to move at a good, steady clip in order for the plot to carry the most impact. If you are writing a literary novel in which you want to invite the reader to contemplate, or if you are writing an historical novel or a sci-fi set in an alternate universe, learn to write description well and don’t skimp on it. With these genres you also need a well-crafted plot, but it needn’t fly; with these types of books, the atmosphere you create is just as important as the plot.
Meanwhile, all of you, keep your minds open to new styles – or rehashed old ones. Regard anyone advising you to cut language with a great degree of scepticism. If they are encouraging less redundancy in your writing, that is legitimate advice, regardless of genre. But if they are intent on clipping your creative wings because of a misplaced marriage to modern views of literary expediency, smile politely and then go off and write exactly what you believe in. Who knows, maybe in the end you will shake the literary world!