Description Addiction: Are You Guilty?
The Yachak healer stepped back, dissolving into a dark corner of the room. His subject stood alone in the middle of the dirt floor, eyes closed, hands held out, palms-up.
From the dark, the Yachak’s face flickered orange in candle light. He touched a yellow plastic bottle to his lips, took a swig, and spewed an orange fire ball at his subject’s face.
Hi, I’m Bonnie, and I’m a description addict. From the looks of it here at our Travel Writing and Photography workshop in Ecuador — I’m not the only one.
I get high on telling you all about how the flame crackled orange when it rolled from the Yachak’s lips. I want you to see how dark and dusty the room was. And feel how quiet it became when he rolled brown eggs along his subject’s body and covered her with chewed-up flower pedals.
But as travel writer Steenie Harvey told us today, “You’re a travel writer, not a hack churning out fluffy nonsense for a travel brochure.” Descriptions are good. But they’re not a story on their own. You need facts and other specifics to round out your article if you want to sell it.
The truth is, description addicts like me — we’re lazy. I couldn’t wait to get back to my computer to tell you about this shamanic ceremony and what it meant to me. But did I even bother to ask about the history behind this ceremony? Did I get the doctor’s name or the spelling of his tribe? He put red carnations in his mouth, chewed them up and spit them at one of our attendees. Did I ask about the significance of that?
In fact, I don’t even know how to tell readers to get there. I was too excited by the experience to even think about taking notes and asking questions.
Steenie told us today that editors want to give their readers solid, useful information. They don’t want to buy a piece that’s full of fluff and clichés and generalities.
Sure, you need descriptions to engage your reader, to give him a feel for a place or an experience, she said. But that’s not enough.
She offered this example: Say you’re writing about a great experience you had at a restaurant. Go ahead and describe the feel of the place. But also write down exactly what you ate… what kind of wine is on offer… how much your dish cost… how to get there… what parking is like, and so on.
And get specific. Count exactly how many tables there are in the dining room, make note of the range in prices… find out how long the wait is to get in on a Saturday night. It’s those specifics that lend your story authenticity and authority (and make it saleable).
Write everything down. You may not use it all, but at least you’ll have it when you sit down to start your story.
The description is the frosting. It offers a quick, sweet rush. But with no solid cake underneath, it just too much of a good thing. You wouldn’t want to eat an entire plate of frosting. Neither do editors. And they certainly won’t pay you for one.
Staff Writer, Great Escape Publishing
P.S. Everyone here at the Ecuador workshop participated in a Yachak purification ritual… a little piece of a world that tourists don’t usually get to see, much less experience for themselves. We left knowing we’d seen and done something really special. Ecuador is the perfect destination to explore and photograph places and traditions that maintain a genuine authenticity about them. The people here welcome you into their world with ready smiles. They want to share, spread understanding, and create ties. It’s been an amazing week. Everyone should experience it at least once.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]