What I learnt this week: descriptive text

I received my editorial report for Search for Truth last Friday, and started editing on Monday. It’s the fourth time I’ve worked with an editor, and the second I’ve worked with this lovely editor, so the process isn’t new.

And I love it. It’s wonderful to see suggestions on how the book can be improved, and know that they’re right. Putting these suggestions into action can be hard, but that’s the challenge and the fun. Plus the end result is always a better book, so it’s worth the brain ache.

My heart sunk a bit when I saw this comment though.

Detail: Take care to mark each scene. Description, atmosphere.

Here is where I hang my head in shame. I hate writing descriptions. Give me action and speech and the words flow like warm syrup. Ask me to describe where this action or speech is taking place, and they turn into sticky treacle.

The problem is that as a reader, the setting just isn’t important to me. My hero and heroine could be in the snow, the desert or by the sea. I don’t care. I get lost in the dialogue and the action. Where it’s taking place is very much secondary to me. In fact (and yes, my head is now hanging so low it’s touching the floor) when I read I tend to skim over descriptive text.

snow in LoughDSC02591sea local

So you see the wonderful descriptions below? Umm, yes, I would have skipped over these and onto the dialogue.

‘In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.’ Farewell to Arms. Ernest Hemingway

‘They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.’ Brighton Rock. Graham Greene.

‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.’ The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde

BUT I KNOW I’M ODD!! There’s a reason why these writers have gone down in history as literary geniuses. Clearly, to most readers, powerful descriptions are important. They help to place them right in the middle of the scene or action.

So I’m going back to Search for Truth now and I’ll endeavor to add some detail. It won’t be Wilde or Hemingway, but it will be better than it was. Promise.

  • Chris Stovell

    I want to cry when the edits arrive, but I’m always so grateful for the editorial support and the chance to make a novel the best it can be. You do great dialogue, Ms Freeman – it works for me. Looking forwards to Search for Truth!

    • Kathryn Freeman

      Lovely to hear from you Chris – and thank you for the kind comment. I know what you mean about the first read of the edits. This time I didn’t want to cry – but I did have to take a deep breath!

  • Sally Malcolm

    I think I prefer description of place when it relates to the action and is rooted in the POV of the protagonist – so it comes naturally from what they’re feeling, how the place is impacting on them, if that makes sense. You may know that I’m a huge – as in HUGE – Jane Austen fan, and she uses very limited description of place/dress/anything visual. So not all great writers are fans of the purple prose! Me, I’m not a fan of description for description’s sake – like you, I might skim over it. Good luck with the edits!

    • Kathryn Freeman

      Hi Sally – thanks so much for your comment. I love your point about the description being more about how the environment is impacting the protagonist than just for the sake of saying it was old/blue/square etc. I’m going to remember that when I dive back into edits!