Generic descriptions are telltale signs of lazy writing. Add color to your writing by replacing overused and boring words.
It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.
These words are commonly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a description on the fly. But unless a writer is intentionally emulating informal speech, these words make watery, vacuous, and weak additions to written prose.
Use your word processor’s “Find” function or a tool like autoCrit to sniff out generic descriptions and boring words. You’ll find a few false positives among the clunkers:
In 1989 I sailed to Great Abaco Island.
but you’ll also find great opportunities to substitute more impactful language.
Give every description conscious attention. It’s easy to use the words and patterns we naturally gravitate toward when we speak; most of us use the same jokes, adjectives, and pat phrases over and over. As we hammer out a draft, it’s to be expected that this “easy talk” will find its way into our writing. But the best writers go back, isolate the descriptions, and ask themselves, “does this add the tone, color, and intensity the sentence requires?”
John had a good time at the party.
John had a splendid time at the party.
A bit old fashioned.
John had a magnificent time at the party.
Now we’re using flowery words for their own sake. Overwriting is as big a problem as underwriting. Balance is key.
Sometimes, the presence of a generic description is a cue that your narrative needs—well—more narrative:
John had just the right amount to drink at the gathering. He spoke to a cute young woman with dark hair and intelligent-looking glasses for over an hour without saying anything stupid or regrettable, ate at least $30 worth of shrimp, and managed to snap a photo of Harold's painting without being observed—and all on Hanman's dime.
The above example transcends simple descriptions of John’s experience. It allows our character to accomplish something and moves the plot forward. Each internal description reveals something about John’s tastes, values, behavior patterns, and motivations—as if we readers were there at the party observing him and forming our own conclusions. In fact, few words are dedicated to anything other than painting a picture of John having a good time at the party. While writing the first draft, the original, generic description serves as placeholder text. We can get the thought on paper, move on, and then come back later to add spices and garnish.
Springboro High School School District has posted an inspiring guide for students called Banishing Boring Words. Find 50 boring words and phrases to avoid along with plenty of advice, examples, and word lists.
Descriptive words have an “intensity” analogous to color saturation. Words like “good” and “bad” are black and white; they’re functional and clear (and granted, sometimes the ideal word choice) but they lack color. Other words like “splendiferous” and “gargantuan” can perhaps be likened to hot pink or international orange. Words like “awesome” and “ominous” may once have been colorful but their intensity has faded from overuse.
As with visual arts, the best prose comes from careful and mature assessments of hue, saturation, texture, and tone. Writing is design.
For more “Writing is Design” articles, see:
Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs
Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose
Writing is Design: Eliminate THAT Fat From Your Writing