Big McLarge Huge (Or how to improve the descriptive power in your writing)

(The headline is both a great description that lacks value and also a total excuse for me to include this clip from MST3K’s “Space Mutiny” where the actors mock actor David Ryder with multiple nicknames.)

Descriptions are often crucial in journalism, as your writing will be the only way in which your readers will experience something important. The ability to describe something well can help put the audience right next to you as you outline the excitement of a sporting event, the beauty of a sunset or the tension of a crime scene.

To improve description, we need to look for words that are both universally understood and yet specific in their purpose. We also need to avoid words that are vague, ill-defined or otherwise problematic. Here are a few places where we often fail and ways in which we can improve our efforts:

DESCRIPTORS THAT LACK COMPARISON: One of the easiest ways to describe one thing is to relate it to something familiar to the readers. That’s why metaphors and similes often work well in all forms of writing. Describing the face of an embarrassed person as being “red as a clown’s nose” or the torso of a stout person as “barrel-chested” work because we’re familiar with those items.

(Perhaps my favorite descriptor was a hyperbolic one in which Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn was said to be “the size of your average freeway overpass.”)

The descriptors that don’t work are the ones where we need some form of comparative and it’s not there. To make that point, I’ll ask a student who has used one of these comparatives how tall they are. It often goes like this:

Me: How tall are you?
Student: 5-foot-11
Me: Are you tall?
Student: Not really.
Me: Well, in a K-4 class, you’re a giant.
Student: OK, I guess I’m tall.
Me: But on an NBA basketball team?
Student: Yeah, I’m kind of short.

The point is with out a sense of comparison, I have no way of using the descriptor “tall” in a meaningful way. The same is true of “short” or “thin” or “fat” or “average” whatever else falls into that area.

Instead, find words that are more succinct or spend a few extra words to describe the person, place or thing in more detail.

DESCRIPTORS THAT ARE VAGUE: Specifics are often key to description, as this comparison shows:

VAGUE: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had a few bullets left.”
SPECIFIC: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had three bullets left.”

The vague one offers hope. The specific one says this guy is lunch.

Words like “many” or “some” or “few” lack value as do words like “enough” because they lack a concrete meaning for the people who are trying to understand what you want them to see. To improve this, find ways of using context, specific numbers or other similar means to give the readers a better sense of the situation.

VAGUE: Frank had a lot of bobbleheads.
SPECIFIC: Frank had 1,218 bobbleheads.

VAGUE: Jill had many friends attend her speech.
SPECIFIC: Jill’s friends packed the auditorium to hear her speak.

VAGUE: Jim didn’t have enough money.
SPECIFIC: Jim didn’t have the money to pay both his electric bill and his water bill this month.

Perhaps the greatest (or most pointless) word we use often is “very.” Grammarian Don Ranly was fond of telling students that if they wanted to use the word “very,” they should substitute the word “damn,” as it had exactly the same level of meaning:

“Bill was very lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”
“Bill was damn lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”

“Rashawn was very hungry before dinner.”
“Rashawn was damn hungry before dinner.”

DESCRIPTORS OF OPINION: As noted in previous posts, author Stephen King noted that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I’m not sure about that, but it is true that adverbs and other similar opinionated descriptors can do more harm than good in some situations.

Adverbs often convey the writer’s assessment of a situation, something that readers  or sources might not necessarily agree with. Consider the following:

“He  sustained only minor injuries, including a broken arm.”
“Fortunately, the firefighters limited the spread of the fire to half of the home.”
“The team clearly outperformed its opponent.”

In each case, I’m sure there could be an argument brewing from folks reading this stuff. A broken arm doesn’t seem like an “only” level of an injury. (I remember reading that, in sports lingo, a minor injury is one that happens to someone else.)

Even though the firefighters limited the fire, I doubt people feel fortunate about watching half their stuff go up in flames.

Finally, it’s unclear how clear that performance was or how it was defined. It could be by the score, the level of effort or some other such thing. Even more, maybe fans of the opponent would argue, “No, they just got lucky.”

A good way to fix this is to go hunting for those -ly words in your copy during your first edit. See if those words adequately augment what you’re trying to describe or if they just add conjecture or cause other problems.

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