In the January/February 2013 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, J.T. Bushnell has a fascinating article about description and how it operates on the human brain. He explains and illustrates the neural mechanisms that allow concrete words to engage the reader in ways that abstract words cannot.
As interesting and compelling as the science is, Bushnell’s points make perfect writing sense even without it:
“By description I mean the concrete, the things we can observe with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. I do not mean simple adjectives. I do not mean descriptions such as ‘The weather was glorious.’ Glory is an abstraction, a category of word that George Orwell calls meaningless. By itself, the word glorious is useless because it can’t show us anything concrete. It can’t show a white-hot sun perched overhead, or a sky so hard and blue that a fly ball might shatter it. It can’t show a pitcher’s shadow puddled under his cleats, or heat rising from the ground in shimmering corrugation. It can’t produce the smell of hot aluminum bleachers, or the lubricated slide of a sweaty armpit, or a sunburn tightening the skin on the back of your neck. It can’t let you taste the sweat on your lip when you go too long between slugs of cold beer. Only concrete description can do that.” (p. 50)
Glorious might be how you, the writer, feel about the day, but that’s because you experience all those other things in your mind as you write: the sun, the sky, the shadows, the sweat. Your job as writer is to tell stories in such a way that the reader experiences what you have experienced. You want someone to read your description and think, What a glorious day! without having been told to think that.
Bushnell also quotes novelist Richard Bausch on the matter:
“‘There is so much more in an image because that is how we experience the world, and a good story is about EXPERIENCE, not concepts and certainly not abstractions. The abstractions are always finally empty and dull no matter how dear they may be to our hearts and no matter how profound we think they must be…. So, in revision, get rid of all those places where you are commenting on things, and let the things stand for themselves.’” (p. 50)
It always comes down to that in the end – the abstractions we use are so dear to us, so deeply reflect our experience, that we are loathe to relinquish them. But therein lies the key: our job as writers is not to reflect our experience to the reader but to recreate our experience so the reader may experience it her/himself.
If you have trouble figuring out how to do this, take a page from Hemingway: look for places where you’ve written statements about emotion and replace them with images. For example, replace ”the outfielder was dejected” with “the outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell.” Give it a try and see where it takes you.
Bushnell’s full article (pp. 48-56) is not available online, but most libraries carry Poets & Writers. Back issues can also be purchased at the magazine’s website (http://www.pw.org/magazine).