Sunday, May 1, 2011

Another step on the writing path

Mr7 and I have been talking about description lately. His English classes at school are beginning to move along from straight recount - we did this, and then we did this, and then we did this - and into writing. His teacher has been trying to encourage some description. He is not keen. He feels the descriptions distract from the story. I understand how he feels. I've read too many books in my time that required me to wade through pages and pages of adjectives before I could spot any semblance of plot.

But it's also difficult to build a writerly picture without it. The Cat Sat On The Mat. Straightforward plot. But what kind of cat was it? What colour? Long-haired? Short-haired? White socks on its paws? Was the mat a deep-pile oasis of luxury, or a rough, hairy, rubber-backed doormat?

You get the picture.

We went for a little bushwalk on Saturday, during a break in the weather, as raindrops dripped off leaves around us and we jumped over the puddles (or through them in Mr4's case). As we walked, I asked Mr7 what he could smell.

He took a long, hard, seven-year-old sniff.

"Air," he shrugged.

"Remember we were talking about description?" I asked. He nodded. "How would you describe the smell?"

He sniffed again. And again. "I don't know, mum," he said, desperation in his voice. He likes to get things right. "Is there lavender in there somewhere?"

I laughed. "Can you smell the rain on the leaves?"

Yes, he could.

"Can you smell the fresh, tangy eucalyptus oil from those gum trees?"

He nodded.

"Can you smell those soggy leaves, rotting on the ground?"

He nodded again. And thought.

"That's description, isn't it, mum?"

Yep. Lesson over. We'll save the other senses for another day.

How do you feel about description in books? The more the better, or do you prefer just enough to keep the story rolling along?


  1. It really depends on the text and the writer. For instance Hardy leaves me actually wanting more of his descriptive writing because he's such a genius with description, while other writers leave me thinking "finish up already and get back to the plot." There's a level of skill required with descriptive writing which requires lots of practice. Sounds like Mr 7 has a bloody good teacher ;)

  2. I think it depends on what type of description for me. If it does not interest me and is boring - then no. We began reading The Wind in The Willows tonight as a family story - I was surprised how we all loved the quirky details. Beautiful language too, it was written over 100 years ago - but the sense of wonderful words was magic.

    Do love those experiences, your bush walk looks quite like where we live!
    Rach x

  3. More and more I like sparse writing. I actually find it more evocative because it allows me to conjure it in my mind. A few brush strokes is all I want. Tim Winton comes to mind. It's an art though, to describe without it seeming like you are pausing to describe.

  4. Some writers do it beautifully and paint a real picture with their words. Gerald Durrell does it so well you can see, hear, smell and taste his description of growing up in Corfu. I can (and do)read it over and over.

  5. I'm a fan of Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles. But she can go on and on with the descriptions. It's overwhelming at times. I've skipped two or three pages before and the story never progressed passed some useless description of Lestat's clothes.

    S. Morgenstern's The Princess Bride is another example of an overuse of descriptions. If I am remembering correctly, for 40 pages he described Princess Buttercup's doll collection she had in the castle.


    Good for Mr7 for taking his school so seriously. And good for you for such a great lesson in sensory perception.

  6. I like short sharp shiny decriptions that paint a vivid picture.

    Otherwise, get me to the dialogue.

    Olivia has just started to complete "expositions". I had to look up what that I suspect your Mr 7 has a much better ancillary teacher in you, than Olivia can ever hope for...

  7. I am doing a creative writing course at the moment and am writing a story, where I am very close to the main character, and inside his thoughts. Therefore descriptions are also descriptions of thoughts and experiences, as well as descriptions of a place or people.

    Describing the smell of damp leaves are also thoughts that a character would be thinking as he walks along the path. After all he would notice those leaves wouldn't he if he's there.

    We actually did a session on writing based on a picture.

    I have often wondered how much do you leave to the imagination. Yet somebody said that she could imagine a place in my story to be dark, even though I didn't write that. It is interesting isn't it, that you can go so far with describing objects, yet the reader can get a sense of the atmosphere anyway, without you spelling out every detail.

    Do you have to describe that somebody suffered a nightmare? Probably not, because the circumstances were obviously a nightmare if he then got up, went to the toilet and then went back to bed.

    Plus there is a huge difference between writing as an adult and writing a story for school. Things seem to flow more instinctually as an adult and you can go back and fill in the gaps another day.

    I am no expert, but there must be a fine line between writing pages of un-necessary info before you get to the plot and padding it out enough to create imagination, so it's not too hard to read.

    Description seems to go with everything: creating a character, places, how he/she reacts to things.

    If something was all description, it would also be very passive and no plot and you don't want that either.

  8. What I love about this particular story is that you 'showed' him description. Beautiful lesson.

  9. I like careful description. Writers that select words that ooze with meaning so a whole sentence isn't even required.


  10. I love the way you helped Mr7 learn about descriptive writing. When it comes to reading and writing I much prefer to have all my senses invoked. I will have to be careful not to get too carried away with my adjectives when writing.

  11. awww....this is soooo cute:) U are such an intelligent mum..Wow a walk in the woods. Sigh if only I could stay in such a place. I personally don't like much descriptions. but well they do give u a sense. I prefer little..and would rather like the plot than the descriptions:P

  12. Thank you for stopping by and leaving me a thoughtful comment. I'm happy to discover you through Ah Possibilities!

    Descriptive writing is not my strong suit but appreciate writers who mastered this. May be I have a bias - too much description is like piling too much sprinkles, nuts, granolas, fruit or what have you on an already amazing chocolate ice cream. Chocolate ice cream just tastes so darn good solo and in a cup.

  13. I like enough detail to let me know where I am, the mood, the basics... too much is overkill though. Let me build parts of it in my mind if the setting does not have to be exact to carry the plot. I love that you made the lesson real-life based for Mr 7. Great teachers try to do that every day!

  14. The key is balance. I think good writers use description well enough to paint a picture for the reader, but then also encourage the reader to use their imagination and their interpretation. I love being taken away by descriptive writing and then taking it even further in my mind. That is good writing. :)

  15. I've struggled with this too. I'm with mr 7, just get to the point. It's a fine line between painting a picture and putting people to sleep. Maybe because my background is journalism where you have a limited space to get the facts out. I wondered with my manuscript if I'd gone far enough with the flowery nonsense but it would be far too long if I went on any further.

  16. Hey, perfect example of natural learning, Allison. Has to be the loveliest way to learn, don't you think?

    I love description in a story but I don't like it when it's forced and over done. If there's a house or garden or beautiful scenery involved then the more description the better!

  17. I think it depends on the writer too. I once made the mistake of picking up a Matthew Riley paperback (I actually paid money for it) right before a long bus trip. The tedium of detail saw me chose to study the patterned carpet of the seat in front of me rather than suffer a further page.

  18. What a wonderful teacher you are! His English teacher will no doubt be impressed...

    Personally, I am overly fond of exquisitely crafted descriptive paragraphs. Paint me a picture with words any day!

  19. We moms are always thinking of ways to help our littles with this kind of stuff. My littles are all teens and I miss these kinds of teaching moments.
    As for descriptive writing...Sara Gruen in Water for Elephants does it exactly perfectly the way I like it. I have never had a book that I recommended based on the style of writing as much as the story as I did with this one.
    There has to be a good mix of description, plot and character development.

  20. I'm not great at visualising the description anyway so something that captures it in a few words is good for me. I get lost with too much description. :D

  21. PS. I agree Mr7 has a fabulous teacher. It made me think of how I would describe it while I was reading too.

    My Miss Tween is fantastic at writing though. She could teach me a thing or two I'm sure.

  22. we spoke a lot about this at the writer's workshop I recently went to. A man in the class said he hated reading pages and pages of writing to description, but then he said later he had come to the workshop to get better at writing long descriptions! I think like Sarah said above - it depends upon the writer

    I like the way Tim Winton describes...Keeps me reading on anyhow

  23. Hi Allison,
    In the spirit of blogging and in recognition of your great blog, I'd like to pass 'The Versatile Blogger' award to you.

    In accepting the award, there's just a few rules. (Who'd have thought awards had rules?!)

    *Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to their site ( in your post.
    *Tell us 7 things about yourself in your blog post.
    *Pass the award on to 15 'newly discovered' bloggers.
    *Contact these bloggers to let them know you have given them the award.

    Shar (Mum On The Run) :-)

  24. I've wondered sometimes whether the appreciation of description in writing falls along gender lines. My husband cannot tolerate it. I appreciate it a lot but of course, need it to be done well. Sometimes I four word sentence evokes more than 2 pages of description. I think of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Carson McCullers and Kate Grenville and I am in awe of their power of description. With writing so sparse and words so carefully chosen they create worlds that completely transport me.

    I think you cannot have truly good writing without skilled description. But that's just me!

  25. Yup - the 9yo and the 7yo and I have had similar conversations. I often read books to them and then repeat the really descriptive sentences and say...'Now, what did you think of that?' 'Very descriptive, Mum!' YES!!! Now go forth and do!!!

    In general, it's getting them to also include more details in their story-writing. The 9yo's teacher in Year 2 very much pressed upon them the 'who, what, where, how and why' when writing.

    I'm a big believer in that by reading quality literature, their writing will blossom. The 9yo has been reading the Narnia series and some other great books over the past year and we've found his writing has improved ten fold. Captain Underpants is entertaining, but doesn't do much for their writing, I'm afraid!

    Great post, Al. xxx

  26. Allison, you had me even smelling that beautiful Aussie air clear back here in Utah, USA. I think Mr7 has a wonderful teacher when it comes to his writing. Thanks for teaching us in the meantime.

  27. I definitely prefer just enough to keep the story moving. Alittle that pertains to the moment is fine, but I really don't need to know how many ruffles are on the petticoat, or how many different shades of ochre are in the rocks of the cliff someone is about to tumble off.

  28. I scan the descriptive passages most of the time. It is all about characters and dialogue for me. Just like real life x

  29. Give me the story not all the waffle. Sometimes I just skip a few pages to get back to what is happening. But they may be less well written books, I do seem to read a lot of trash in between the good novels.

  30. I like just enough to keep the story rolling along. I get frustrated by long descriptive passages that take me nowhere. I figure that's what my imagination is for. Give me enough just to paint an outline and let me do the rest. But that's just me...!! ;)

  31. I like plot. Always have. As a child I skipped all the italicised bits in the text, inluding the poetry in Lewis Carroll (heathen!).


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