I know this is not your fault. You didn’t abuse anything. Least of all, descriptions. It was all those other writers who have spoiled the written word by using some verbs and phrases one time too many.

Without further ado, here’s your…

List of Descriptions to Put on Hiatus

I wrote them down in past tense and without pronouns where possible to make it easier for you to copy them into the search box of your word processor.

Head, Face, and Sound

  • scowled
  • grinned
  • sighed
  • frowned
  • chuckled
  • nodded
  • eyes went wide
  • nostrils flared
  • mouth fell open
  • jaw clenched
  • pursed his/her lips
  • cleared his/her throat
  • tears filled his/her eyes
  • shook his/her head

The Rest

  • shrugged
  • froze
  • turned back (after freezing at the door)
  • heart raced
  • blood pounded
  • chest heaved
  • body shook
  • crossed his/her arms
  • slapped/clapped a hand over the mouth

Why Shouldn’t I Use Them?

The first weakness of these descriptions is that they are not very descriptive in the first place. Writers who wrote a scene will have all the emotional context needed to interpret a shrug as the shrug, the very specific variation that conveys resignation rather than dejection, and some unwilling agreement and not disinterest. To the reader, a shrug is just a generic, nondescript shrug.

Let’s run an experiment. See how it looks in someone else’s writing:

The teacher looked down at the boys and pursed her lips.

How well could you picture the scene? The teacher must be angry with the boys. Or is she merely upset? Or have they said something that made her indignant? Now, compare with the following:

“And what do you think we do with boys who misbehave, hmm?” The teacher said, pursing her lips.

At this point, the pursing of the lips becomes superfluous as reading the sentence out loud will cause people to purse their lips. If not with the “what” and the “who” then at least with the final “hmmm?”

The second weakness comes from a mostly unwanted element of exaggerated comedy. When you say

His right eyebrow went up.

without specifying how far up it has gone, your readers will choose their own interpretation, mostly to a comical, anime-like effect. Ever watched anime? With characters who instead of going “What?” go “WHAAAAAAAT?” with their mouth agape, presenting a full range of teeth, a mandatory blob of sweat tricking down their temple? I’m sure you get the picture. That’s how readers will see your characters if you rely too much on these generic descriptions.

Are They Really That Bad?

You’re fine to you use a few every now and then. A report will be filed to the Head Office of the Grammar Nazi, but you’ll be let off with a warning. Use too many, however, and readers will begin to think that your heroes have the emotional range of Joey Tribbiani.

Skilled writers do better. Here’s a tip: Even if you write mainly fantasy or science fiction, pick up a book like A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles or All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Both are great reads; entertaining and well-written. Both writers managed to convey a rich emotional range without having to resort to clichés. Read carefully and try to figure out how they’ve done it.

Scan Your Manuscript

Humor me, please, and run a search (ctrl+f) on your manuscript. How many times did your characters sigh, grin, or shrug?

If it’s more than once, you’ve got some work to do.

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