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Hack -- Or Powerful Writer? You Choose

Posted by Priscilla on February 10, 2012

As part of my commitment to myself as writer, I subscribe to several writing magazines.  They are full of great encouragement, helpful tips, and, sometimes, hilarious ads.  Take this latest -- an ad for software that enables you to pack your story full of descriptive words:  “A new world of descriptive words at your fingertips” -- and then a picture of a web page with a list of the very words and phrases you might want to plug in to your story

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that if you buy this software and follow their suggestions, you will guarantee your place as “writing hack” forever. 

Why?  The list presented of descriptive words and phrases has two flaws:  1) the words are not actually descriptive and 2) the phrases are clichés.

Let’s talk first about what makes a word descriptive.  A descriptive word always appeals to one of your five senses.  Can you taste, smell, hear, feel, or see something when the word is used?  That is description.  So, for example, the truck is green or the ham tastes bitter.  (Did you know that ham could also taste like a pigpen smells?)  If your writing appeals to the senses, then your insistence that the truck is green can be verified.  Everyone else will look at it and agree, yes, the truck is green.

Contrast this with the list given by the new writing software:  handsome, stunning, stellar, and so on.  These words are merely labels.  Each is someone’s opinion.  The problem with an opinion is that it cannot be verified--and it can certainly be disagreed with.  You think that man is handsome?  I think he’s ugly.  What is stellar to you may be mediocre to me.  A label-word never actually describes because it is not specific.  Instead, it offers a very abstract generality.  If you tell me that your heroine is beautiful, I cannot picture her in my mind.  If you tell me that her dimples match the sparkle in her eye, or that her hair sweeps back from a high forehead above calm grey eyes, I might decide for myself that she is beautiful.  And that is better for me, the reader.

What about some of the phrases touted in this ad as “unique” and “fresh?”  Let’s look at some of them:  “a wonder to behold,”  “perfect ten,”   and “poetry in motion.”  Have you heard these before?  Of course, you have.  They may have been amazing when first uttered or first written.  Now?  Old, overused, and, according to my high school English teacher, “glittering generalities.”  Clichés are never good.  Clichés that make no sense are even worse.  What, pray tell, is poetry in motion?  Have you seen a poem move?  How does it do that?  Does it dance the tango off the page or rearrange itself?


Do yourself a favor and learn to write the old-fashioned way.  Avoid software programs that say they will give you “a great vocabulary and fresh ideas.”  Freshness lies in powerful description.  Describing something well --powerfully-- is all about using specific detail and your five senses.  Here’s an example from The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht:   “The cages face a courtyard, and we go down the stairs and walk slowly from cage to cage.  There is a panther, too, ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat; a sleepy, bloated lion from Africa.  But the tigers are awake and livid, bright with rancor.  Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.” 

Now go out and try it yourself.



Posted by Kate Dolan on
That's too funny! I had never looked into the ads for magical writing software - it is hard to believe they didn't come up with anything better than "a wonder to behold." (A fresh idea in Chaucer's time maybe?) Thanks for sharing, and I loved the descriptive example you used for contrast!
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