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It’s also about watching, listening, waiting, sensing and knowing. That’s because the best writing is in the details, and collecting — and then showing — those details is what separates memorable writing from the merely pedestrian.
Chances are you’ve been collecting those details since you became aware there was a world beyond yourself. Perhaps you remember a picture that hung on the wall opposite your crib (I do), or the particular feel of the blanket of your childhood bed.
You may recall the soft touch against your nose of your favorite thumb-sucking aid, or the sound of your mother’s laughter across an expanse of lawn on a warm and lingering summer evening.
It’s in the translation to writing that so many of these singular details lose their particularity. We read and hear cliché tens of times each day, and so it’s remarkably simple to fall back on them ourselves when the time comes to describe something in our writing.
Your first reaction to a sunset will likely be an adjective like “spectacular,” so your inclination is to write it the same way. Cliché is convenient shorthand that everyone understands, but, precisely because it is shorthand, it lacks the particularity of writing that really connects.
In fact, it’s a cliché that something is universal when it’s familiar. Rather, the more individual a description, the more universal the connection. You, the writer, make that description individual and unique by using those details (that sunset, that blanket, that laugh) you collected.
Still, the question remains: How do you move these details into your writing?
The answer is to use your senses. What, for instance, was it about that “spectacular” sunset that made it memorable?
Here’s an example that moves a particular sunset beyond cliché:
“Slashes of garish gold at the horizon yielded to outrageous orange, then red, purple, blue, azure and turquoise as the sky is swallowed by the darkness.” In this case, I’ve relied on just one sense, sight, but you don’t have to limit yourself in that way at all — even it it’s a sunset you’re describing.
Note, though, that the picture of this sunset contains, as well, movement. The gold comes on stabbing at the sky, and the darkness moves in and snuffs it out. Rather than just calling it spectacular, I've also qualifed and quantifed, provided images that explain why.
Rather than rely on that same, old, tired adjective, I’ve named colours and the way they interweave to fashion a particular sunset that moves beyond ordinary, generic description.
The next time you find a cliché in your writing, replace it with a phrase that uses as many of the senses as you can. Chances are, your final product won’t use all of them, but using the senses forces you beyond cliché. Describe what you’re writing about by answering the following question:
What does it look/sound/smell/taste/feel like? Simple. Now write it.
In The Catcher In The Rye, J. D. Salinger describes a room this way: “The…lobby… smelled like fifty million dead cigars.” This description, using a single mage and just one of the senses, provides a distinct, timeless and compelling picture of that particular lobby.
Try for the same in your own writing. The results will both surprise you and please you.
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