One of my first college essay assignments was to describe my bedroom, and I described the heck out of it. I gave almost every item a prominent role, as if I were describing a display of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. The amount of minutia bogged down the writing, and I earned a “B” on the paper. A low “B.”
After complaining about the grade to my mom, I took the time to read the instructor's comments to try to understand what I did wrong. The answer was simple – I focused on everything, which means nothing stood out to create a clear visual in the eyes of the reader.
Ideally, I should have summarized parts of the room as a whole, and given details when they were interesting enough to create a visual that helps establish a mood, evoke an emotion, provide character insight, or move the story forward. The good news is that writers don't need to include a lot of details to be effective.
The office was in perfect order except for several manila folders strewn all over the mahogany desk, and Mr. Jenkins' dead body on the floor.
In this scene, I don’t need more details about the office. I’ve summarized that by using the phrase perfect order. We can all see an office like that in our minds, and they are all different, but we have the general idea. I also debated whether or not to include the word mahogany. In this case, I used it because I didn't want to give the impression that this was a cheap metal desk like the ones found in millions of cubicles.
The word mahogany also conveys the idea that the office belongs to someone with power. I don’t need to say a large, polished mahogany desk, and I don’t need to tell how many drawers are in the desk. That fact doesn’t matter, unless the top, right-hand drawer contains the gun used to kill Mr. Jenkins, but for this scene, it doesn’t. Readers also don't need to know the color of a lamp shade, or that the couch was leather.
Summarizing the whole and zeroing in on an item or image that exemplifies or stands out helps create a visual in the readers' minds.
Her pale clothes and skin were equally wrinkled (summary), an interesting contrast to the polished, six-carat diamond on the third finger of her left hand (specific).
My final tip is to make sure you see the images in your own mind, and that they come through clearly with as little detail as possible. Members of my critique group are great at catching my mistakes by asking questions I can’t always answer. My silence means I’m not sure I’ve seen something clearly enough to determine which details are important, and need to rewrite to evoke the right mood or emotion, give character insight, or move the story forward.
Every writer should be so lucky to have first readers like these. I only wish they had been there when I wrote that college essay.
Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.
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