“Listen carefully to what I say; let my words ring in your ears.” Job 13:17
I couldn’t wait to hear from my middle son after his first day in boarding school. We had installed him in his dorm at Taejon Christian International School over the weekend, and I was anxious to learn how he was adjusting. This is a verbatim transcript of our phone conversation:
Me: So how was your first day of school?
Him: It was fine.
Me: Did you like your classes?
Him: Yeah, they were fine.
Me: Do you like your teachers?
Him: They’re fine.
Me: How do you like your roommate so far?
Him: He’s fine.
Me: Do you like your dorm parents?
Him: They’re fine. Hey Mom, I’ve already wasted 1,000 won, so I’ll talk to you later.
Me: Love you. Miss you. (He’s already gone.)
I was no wiser after we hung up than I had been before he called. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I had expected more effusive communication from an 8th grade boy.
This conversation with my son illustrates an important principle of communication, especially for writers: Choose strong words packed with meaning. Take my son’s term of choice, for instance. We use “fine” to describe lots of things – fine art, fine dining, fine print, feeling fine. (You can fill in others.) But how can we gauge the quality of “fineness” in different situations? The word by itself just doesn’t give us much information.
A good writer chooses words that punch. We don’t tell readers what characters are feeling – we show them. Look at this example. What do you think I mean if I say I had a nice time at the party? What information does that give you? How would your understanding change if I said, “I laughed so much my ribs are still hurting,” or “I became so engrossed in conversation that I lost track of time,” or “I never knew that Karaoke could be such fun.” Do you see how the image in your mind changes with each description?
Let’s try another one. What can we do with, “This cake tastes good.” How good is it?
a. My stomach cried “Stop!” but my mouth begged for more.
b. I wanted to throw away my fork and plant my whole face in it.
c. It tasted so like Grandmother’s that I had to wipe away tears.
You get the idea. Writers know what pictures they have in their own heads, but readers can’t see past the page. If we want our readers to see the same images that fill our minds, we must paint the pictures in words. Don’t tell the reader that a woman is frightened. Show the reader her pounding heart, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and how she gasps at every unexpected noise. Instead of noting that a man is angry, describe his scowl, his clenched fists, his narrowed eyes and red face. Readers are not stupid. Let them figure out for themselves what’s going on inside a character’s heart and head by describing what the person does.
Here are some weak sentences. Practice rewriting them to create specific images:
1. I feel cold.
2. I liked the movie.
3. I’m tired after cleaning the garage.
4. The homework was hard.
5. I’m hungry.
6. My brother made me mad.
7. He worked hard on the project.
8. She didn’t like getting up early every morning.
9. It’s hot this summer.
10. The sunset is pretty.
I’d enjoy reading some of your rewrites. If you don’t mind others seeing your work, share them in the Comments section. Happy writing!