Condemned to Describe: How to Choose Words Nicely

There are six recent works of fiction on my windowsill. Their covers list praises from the New York Times, Tampa Bay Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, various popular critics etc. “Taut, witty, fiercely intelligent,” the cover of Lily King’s latest novel reads. The Seattle Times calls another book “masterful.” These book covers offer the endorser’s credibility (“Hey, buy this book because the Whatever Times likes it”). But, I also hear and read these slouchy, evaluative terms in everyday conversation and often read them in the writing of professionals, my peers, and myself. We use words like “beautiful” as a crutch—a cop-out to avoid thinking about the object in front of us and describing it well.

Is it fair to admit that I cringe at words like “incredible”? Yes, because words carry value. The more things we call “beautiful,” the more things the definition must expand to include. If we are willing to admit that the broadest adjectives correspond to ideals, then we also have to admit that using a word like “beautiful” too often and in reference to too many objects diminishes its value. Hence, a question like, “How are you?” has been reduced from an honest relational inquiry to a meaningless cordiality. ”How are you?” now means “Hi” because it’s been worn out.

Not only is word choice, specifically adjective choice, important in everyday conversation, it is also important for the written word. Here is an actual sentence I wrote in the eighth grade to evaluate my homework assignment, which was to tell a story:

“It’s a tragic tale, which captures the emptiness of life in a quaint suburb.”

Yikes. Was my story really tragic? A tragedy on par with Medea, Othello, or genocide? I promise it wasn’t. I will also admit that Sartre’s fictionalization of “emptiness” in Nausea and Hesse’s in Demian schools mine by a long shot.

It’s clear that we’re condemned to describe (Sartre joke), which sometimes requires evaluation. The good news, though, is that evaluation and description are not mutually exclusive--they’re complementary. There are ways we can dodge the most exclusive adjectives.

When writing a narrative, simply don’t evaluate. Evaluation assumes your reader isn’t as smart as you are; let her judge the situation. Basil Bunting said, “Fear adjectives. They bleed nouns.” Maybe if you practice careful description enough, the New York Times will slap the word “beautiful” on your book one day.

When criticizing or giving feedback, ask a question and answer it for yourself. What are the author’s intentions and how does she fulfill them? How well does the author work within her literary form? If she wrote a piece of narrative non-fiction, how well does she imagine herself in relation to her subject?

In everyday conversation, consider your words because they carry value. Consider the implications of their value for meaningful relation to subjects. Prefer honesty to cordiality: “I fell asleep eating a sandwich earlier” is far more significant answer to the question “How are you?” than, “I’m well.”

Use your gifts of perception and reception to embrace the differentia of every situation and to convey details authentically. Words carry meaning, and there are a lot to choose from—string them together nicely.

OpinionHelen Healey