The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Even our best teachers can give us bad writing advice

“Here’s a writing craft tool that you can remove from your toolbox and throw away: description. It’s the stuff that most readers skim. Even when deftly done using the five senses it’s a lead weight. It isn’t needed anymore.” ― Donald Maass

I have one of Donald Maass’ writing books on my shelf. It has some of the best writing advice I’ve read. But, if he’s going to suggest we need no description, he should have stopped and imagined a few things before saying something so flippant:

  • Characters without any physical characteristics–height, weight, eye color, hair color, clothing styles–because the reader learns that through description.
  • Characters who live in unknown houses and who drive unknown cars. Yes, description tells us such things.
  • Monsters we have to take on faith because without description we don’t know whether or not they’re really scary and capable of hurting the protagonist. Same thing can be said about the bad guys and bad women.
  • Imagine being blind to everything in the story. Imagine the characters also being blind because without description, they can’t even imagine what the people they’re talking to (or about) look like.

We seldom need lengthy descriptions like those we found in the old novels many of us had to read in high school. Maybe you read a few of them too, books in which the author started describing a palace and its grounds on page 17 and was still describing it on page 27. I’m glad most books don’t carry on about the looks of things with several thousand words at a time.

Maass’ advice contrasts sharply with those who advocate so-called “thick description,” description that’s multilayered and tells us more than one thing about a person, place or thing.

Maass also suggests that good fiction should be entertaining and about something that matters. I agree. The depth of stories that matter can come from a lot of sources, including the theme, plot, characters, and dialogue. Frankly, I think if a clever author weeded out every single descriptive word and phrase in an otherwise masterpiece of a novel, Maass wouldn’t like the result. Few people would.




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6 thoughts on “Even our best teachers can give us bad writing advice

  1. Great post, Malcolm.

    There were two points that really rang true for me as they’ve been part of my writing journey for several years.

    First, Donald Maass’ writing advice on description strikes us as bad because it’s absolutism. I’d love to read the surrounding context, but what’s posted here does speak for itself. Absolutism and advice should almost always never mix.

    Second, I think we should always consider the degree of description needed for a character, scene, or object. Some need things won’t actually merit much description, while others (those important to the characters and plot) will warrant more description.

    I’d liken it to the choices of filmmakers (the director, cinematographer, the editor): the camera might capture everything in a given scene, as does the page, but the filmmakers can choose to focus on the important aspects and people in that scene, rendering them in more detail as an author would with description.

    It’s true new writers (or those who emulate a thickly descriptive prose style) might fall into the pitfalls of over-describing every element, person, and place in their story, but the answer is not to throw out all description.

    I’d say it’s learning how much to use, where, and why.

    Learn how to use your tools, don’t throw them away.

    Knowing what degree of description to use comes with practice and experience.

    • I also have trouble with “advice” that suggests we should always so something or never do something. At some point, once we trust ourselves and our skills, we know what we can do and what we can’t within any given story. And, as you said, the needs aren’t the same throughout a book.

  2. Indeed. That trust (in ourselves and our skills) is critical to learning how to take, and use, advice as we grow. That’s something many overlook when we first start absorbing writing advice, participating in workshops and critique groups. I know I did. Time helped me learn how to trust my own voice again.

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