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Writers on Writing: Selected Quotations


When it comes to description, the hero requires less than the villain. The hero is essentially the reader. All he needs is a name to identify him. Sometimes he doesn’t even need get that. Michael Gilbert

Don’t spend time on lush description in the middle of an action sequence. April Henry

We have almost forgotten that descriptions of sunsets, rivers, lakes, mountains, valleys used to be one of the staple ingredients of fiction, not merely a painted backdrop for the action but a component evidently held to be necessary to the art. Mary McCarthy

…as my former teacher John Barth…used to say, description needs to be “illustrative” rather than “exhaustive,” meaning that you need to give the reader information that is useful and thematically important rather than information that is merely compulsively comprehensive or too intently microscopic. Julie Checkoway

Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. Stephen King

I write description in longhand because that’s hardest for me and you’re closer to the paper when you work by hand, but I use the typewriter for dialogue because people speak like a typewriter works. Ernest Hemingway

….avoid the use of trite, worn out words and phrases to describe eyes, smiles, and all the varying facial expressions. Do not say, “Her eyes were pensive”; “she smiles sweetly”; “He laughs mockingly”…. Elwood Maren

One of the last writers in North America who believes in a description of a character’s face as an index to character is Saul Bellow….People still describe facial reactions, but that’s not quite the same thing. Charles Baxter

Those novelists who eschew description are probably infusing other aspects of their story with a strong sense of time and place. Donald Maass

In descriptive passages, whether they are descriptive of the contents of a room, or of a fistfight, or of stream of consciousness, most novelists have been timid about risking the long, unbroken block of type. Consequently they have paragraphed descriptions that should have been kept intact. John O’Hara

Descriptions of the setting are easily overdone, often clumsy. Through a misplaced sense of obligation to describe a setting exhaustively, many young writers get into what I call the setting fallacy—that is, they start the story with a whole paragraph describing the sky, weather, or a city street as the protagonist walks into a bar. David Madden

…we no longer describe for the sake of describing, from a caprice and a pleasure of rhetoricians. We consider that man cannot be separated from his city, his country; and hence we shall not note a single phenomenon of his brain or heart without looking for the causes or the consequence in his surroundings….I should define description: “An account of environment which determines and completes man.” Emile Zola

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com