You’ve done it before. I’ve done it before.
You are editing and you hit the fifteenth time you’ve described the forest as dark. So you pull out the thesaurus and go with “gloomy,” or “shadowed.” Then move on.
Really? Is that the best you’ve got?
Writers get into word ruts.
More than that, we get into description ruts. Which is fine during the first draft, but during the editing phase fixing them involves more than a simple switcheroo of word choice.
What do I mean by a description rut? When you pound the reader with describing something the exact same way without adding anything new. In other words, you just open the thesaurus and pick a synonym.
Every time you describe something, it is a chance to add to a reader’s understanding of the environment, character, or situation. Just using a synonym doesn’t add much – it just repeats already known information. Instead of broadening the world of your book, it deepens a groove. Which can get awfully boring.
It could be a useful technique if you are trying to create a tightening spiral of lessening choices. As a character loses options, descriptions start repeating to mimic the limited thoughts/exits/etc. Think horror novel or psychological thriller. BUT in most cases feeding the reader with additional information while avoiding scene or description dumps later is the goal.
Don’t rehash. Ask yourself what is something new you can say about what you are trying to describe?
In an early draft of Spark of Defiance when Zhao first sees the hidden Nifail village of Avlun, I wrote this:
“Grass ropes disappeared into the shadows. They stood on the edge of a chasm, large enough to swallow a ship. Beams of sunlight illuminated a small stream with grassy banks along its floor. The flatness of the steppe hid the chasm from view until they stood at its rim.”
It works. But there is so much there I can not only clean up, but ADD to the moment to really bring Avlun to life. So after a few rounds of editing, this scene became:
“Ropes woven of long stranded grass disappeared downward. They stood at the far edge of a vast gouge in the earth, wide and deep enough at the surface to swallow a merchant ship or even the mass of one of the great trees in Lus na Sithchaine. In the beams of afternoon sunlight slanting down to the crevasse bottom far below, small bushes and mossy grass grew along a narrow stream.
Despite is size, the sheet flatness of where it lay in the rolling grass plain hid the gorge from view. Even looking across the landscape, Zhao could not find where side canyons twisted though he could see the dark openings along the length of the deep main chasm.”
I like it better. I see it in my mind better. Hopefully you do too!
So the next time you reach for a thesaurus, stop. Think about what you are really trying to describe. What other clues can you give the reader other than calling the forest gloomy? Are the leaves fallen and clinging damply to boots? Or do twigs hidden by dense undergrowth snap underfoot?
If you are describing a cave, don’t stop at dark or dank. Describe scraping a knee while pushing through a narrow slot. Tell me about the damp muck clinging to the heroine’s hand, the mineral smell, and echoing drip of water.
What are you working on now? Describe it to me!