Writing is hard. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Writing badly is easy -- most of us learn to do that in school -- but writing well is difficult, and the best writers are the ones who make it look easy. Most people think that good writing includes lots of adjectives and flowery descriptions and words only an English professor with a hefty thesaurus would know, but that could not be further from the truth. If a reader can’t understand your writing, or is overwhelmed with the amount of words you use to describe something, they won’t read it, and if they do read it, they won’t be moved by it. Writing lengthy and verbose sentences is easy, writing plain, concise sentences requires restraint and focus.
I have been working on this in my own writing for quite some time. I try to cut out adjectives and adverbs that I add into my writing as fluff out of habit from writing too many papers with page minimums in school (believe it or not, using drawn-out descriptions and big words can take a paper from five pages to eight pages). Lots of writers use flowery descriptors to signal their intellect to other writers, a habit that leaves readers feeling confused and bored. Usually, if something can be described as beautiful or tragic, it’s pretty self evident that it is beautiful or tragic. If someone is writing about people in third world countries not having access to clean water, they don’t need a multitude of adjectives to make the point that this is a sad thing. The reader understands implicitly that a child not being able to drink clean water is sad, even without the writer describing it as “heart-breaking.” Of course it’s heart-breaking. It’s more powerful for the writer to let the reader come to their own conclusions rather than use trite descriptors to tell them what they already know.
The best writers are clear and to the point. They make complex ideas seem simple and straightforward, and don’t overcomplicate their writing to seem sophisticated. The question, then, is when descriptive language is actually useful. There has to be some use for all those adjectives and adverbs, right? But what is it?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite example of a writer who uses descriptive language artfully without resorting to clichés or cringe-worthy phrases like “The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter” (an example from this Atlantic article on the topic of pedantic academic writing). Take this quote from The Great Gatsby:
“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
This is a purely descriptive statement, but everyone knows what Fitzgerald is talking about when he refers to a sort of tender curiosity. That’s because he implemented a unique combination of words that cut to the heart of what he was trying to say without going overboard. Think about how many people have described the feelings of love and affection throughout history and not captured that nuanced feeling nearly as skillfully as Fitzgerald captures it in that simple sentence. Imagine if he had just said “I wasn’t actually in love, but felt a yearning in my heart” -- boring, and not nearly as effective. The reader would kind of know what he’s getting at, but it’s not powerful, and it doesn’t grab your attention. A sentence like that makes readers fall asleep, while a sentence like Fitzgerald’s makes the reader viscerally empathize with the character. He finds the perfect words to describe something intangible and fleeting.
Consider these quotes:
“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
These quotes are descriptive without being boring or trite. He finds a way to describe the feeling of being overwhelmed and consumed by the beauty of life’s capacity to change at any moment (a terrible description next to Fitzgerald’s but oh well) and a way to describe summer garden parties that evokes both a mental image and a bodily nostalgia. He doesn’t even need to use a temporal descriptor in the second quote (night, evening, late), you just know from the very beginning of the sentence that it takes place at night because the gardens are blue and green gardens look blue at night. So good. Ok, I’m starting to feel like a high school English teacher nerding out about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
His writing is not obfuscated through his use of descriptive language but rather made clearer through it, and that’s the way it should be. The same way beauty is achieved through functionality in visual art and architecture, beauty is achieved through functionality in writing. Bells and whistles can make your writing academic, but it will never send a shiver down your reader’s spine. Say something meaningful and find a way to say it precisely. I’m still working on it in my writing.