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Writing Guide with Handbook

17.6 Editing Focus: Descriptive Diction

Writing Guide with Handbook17.6 Editing Focus: Descriptive Diction

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Apply editing strategies to highlight the features of visual rhetoric.
  • Edit to include concrete nouns and descriptive language when writing about images.
  • Identify instances of wordiness and overused modifiers and edit to eliminate them.

People reading about visual and digital images expect to encounter vivid, descriptive language that allows them to picture the image as they read. Particularly helpful is detailed language, such as precise names for colors (for example, aqua, teal, or navy for different shades of blue) or similes (for example, steel blue like the October sky seen through a heavy Los Angeles smog). This type of language helps readers visualize the image differently and broadens their range of experience. Such descriptive writing incorporates your personal experience with the elements of visual rhetoric discussed in this chapter.

Consider the following suggestions to help you bridge the gap between your experience and that of your reader.

  • First, use concrete, rather than abstract, nouns. An abstract noun is a word such as concept or practice. It refers to an idea rather than a thing. A concrete noun refers to something visible or tangible: arc, circle, or line. Your reader can identify concrete nouns in the image and follow your description more meaningfully.

    Example 1

    Original: The artist used a lot of colors for the face instead of dividing it into lights and darks.

    Revision: The French painter Henri Matisse (1869–1954) used blues and greens, along with reds and yellows, to depict the woman’s face instead of separating it into realistic color and shading.

    Example 2

    Original: By the placement of the figures, the sculptor depicts dominance.

    Revision: By placing the African and Indigenous figures behind and lower than the central figure mounted on horseback, the sculptor depicts the dominance of the White man, Theodore Roosevelt.

  • Second, use adjectives sparingly. Readers rely on subjects and verbs to draw meaning from sentences. Those are the words that light up the synapses and neurons in people’s brains. They are the characters and actions in stories, while all other words act as “filler.” Although they provide color, interest, and detail, they lack the power of subjects and verbs. So let your subjects and verbs pack the punch, and reserve adjectives and adverbs for special occasions.

    Consider the advice given by one of America’s classic writers, Mark Twain (1835–1910): “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

    Example 1

    Original: Inside and outside, the big, shiny memorial building was covered with many very small, brightly colored tiles.

    Revision: Both the interior and exterior of the memorial were adorned with mosaics.

    Example 2

    Original: The bleak meadow, which looked very dreary and not very serene, with bits of snow all around, was the perfect backdrop for the majestic eagle and its massive nest.

    Revision: The snow dotting the meadow made it look bleak rather than serene, highlighting the majesty of both the eagle and its nest.

  • Finally, strengthen verbs by removing weak, wordy structures. There are and it is are two such structures. If you look deeper into the sentence, you usually can find a verb masquerading as a noun. While you’re at it, eliminate unnecessary or filler words, such as prepositions or repetitive conjunctions.

    Example 1

    Original: It is obvious that the artist intended that the painting should be something that projects clarity and insight.

    Revision: The artist obviously intended the painting to project clarity and insight.

    Example 2

    Original: Throughout the United States near the end of the landscape painting era, there was growing disillusionment among artists with the naturalness of nature.

    Revision: As the landscape painting era neared an end, U.S. artists became increasingly disillusioned with the naturalness of nature.

Practice Using Descriptive Diction

Revise the following descriptions to eliminate abstract nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and extra words. Be sure to keep the same meaning.

  1. The dirty, grimy, broken walls in the artist’s painting of the building really show anyone looking at it that there is no one living there because of the condition or maybe some other reason.
  2. The drawing is really very beautiful; the artist has done a great job of making the face look like the real person’s face, especially the features.
  3. In the picture, there are flowers in a vase and some food and other things on a table; in the background, there is a cat.
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