On Descriptive Writing…

One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words--and This Was Sunday    One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words–and This Was A Sunday

According to a wonderful word-nerd site called the Global Language Monitor, there are 999,353 words in the English language. This sheer head-spinning volume all but guarantees I’ll never finish the New York Times Sunday Crossword, though it’s my ignorance of the Hebrew months that usually trips me up there.  This volume of available words also eliminates any excuse for lame copywriting.  With all those adjectives and adverbs, product descriptions should far exceed the shame of tripe like “wholesome goodness,” “family fun.” and “great values.”

Granted, we toil in a largely parity world, and so the vast majority of our work demands we enhance the mundane or magnify the mediocre.  It can be a challenge to elevate this type of writing so too often, lesser talents roll over in the product section, regurgitating the pre-approved, sanitized-for-no-one’s-engagement laundry list of attributes directly from the brief.

But every now and then, some brilliant creative escapes the constraints of these assignments and creates work that soars–even in the traditional wasteland of the product section.  And that merits celebration.

Which is why a few months back, I forwarded this link to the Element 79 creative department.  This is comedian Patton Oswalt’s review of the KFC “Famous Bowl” and while his words decidedly don’t sell the product, his description speaks vividly to the palate and memorably to the imagination–most notably when he summarizes this ill-considered but mystifyingly popular caloric nightmare as “a failure pile in a sadness bowl.”  Choirs of writing angels should herald that phrase alone, and yet Patton goes on to spin a total of 1,121 words into a yarn that simultaneously informs and repels anyone with even trifling respect for their arterial health.

That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...
That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...

On a similar if decidedly higher-brow note, I’ve been reading Cutting for Stone on the recommendation of my wife Maureen.  Reading the bookflap description of the author provides a harsh reminder of the standards set by true practitioners of the writing craft.  This is Dr. Abraham Verghese’s third novel that he penned while practicing as a board-certified internal medicine specialist in pulmonary and infectious diseases as part of the Stanford University School of Medicine Faculty.  By way of comparison, I know all the lyrics to Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died.”

Even though I’m not yet a third of the way through this fascinating book, Verghese’s writing has already revealed itself as superlative: filled with astute observations and achingly emotive descriptors.  One that leapt off the page centered around a flight taken by one of his main characters from Yemen to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aboard a rattletrap DC-3.  Sitting amidst a melting pot of nationalities, she notices “…the mingled scents of the human freight.  The Arabs had the dry, musty smell of a grain cellar, the Asians contributed the ginger and garlic; and from the whites came the odor of a milk-soaked bib.

Wow.  Never before, and perhaps never again, will you read those particular words constructed in that particular way.  A worthy goal for any professional writer.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

4 thoughts on “On Descriptive Writing…

  1. chris says:

    on “particular words constructed in a particular way,” lately i’ve been hooked on chuck palahiuk’s writing (fight club, stranger than fiction, choke, diary, lullaby, haunted…). he grabs your attention with some some pretty unique and sick ideas, and then kneads your brain over and over with unexpected constructions of words. here’s one of my favorite quotes, that kinda pertains to what you were writing about today…

    “The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. stone crumbles. wood rots. people, well, they die. but things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”

  2. mark0905 says:

    I’m 46 years old, but I only read at the 40-year old level, so books like Mr. Verghese writes are beyond me.

    P.S. Favorite kid book review comment: The covers of this book are too far apart.

    P.P.S. When I want to feel ignorant and narrow of interest, I read books by my genius (literally) brother-in-law Richard Powers (MacArthur Genius and National Book award winner). http://www.richardpowers.net/

  3. george tannenbaum says:

    If I might recommend something I’ve always sent around to creative departments: George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

    Here’s a link to Orwell and an excerpt.

    “I think the following rules will cover most cases:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.”

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