It’s That Time of Year Again


Every year, as the leaves begin to change, I dust off my copy of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and read it again.

Irving had a wonderful way of describing things in luxurious detail. His description of the meals at Katrina’s house is rich enough to make you want to raid the fridge. And his description of Ichabod is priceless:

“The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

There is a tendency for writers today to avoid being too descriptive. This is especially true for picture book authors, who have to leave a great deal of room for an illustrator to work. We’re told to keep the language of our stories crisp and to the point. We’re encouraged to show, not tell.

What if Irving had followed that advice to the letter? How might Ichabod’s tale have been different if Irving had not painted such a clear picture of him for his readers? What if we knew none of the details of the table set at Katrina’s home?

Writers of Irving’s time (Sleepy Hollow was written in about 1820) took their time with a story. A story was meant to be enjoyed at leisure. People sat in front of the fire after dinner (before television and other gadgets intruded on the peaceful arrival of evening), slowly chewing on each sentence, savoring it before moving on to the next. Washington Irving, Jane Austen, and a little later, Mark Twain, knew how to draw us into the world they had created, to see the characters take shape and begin to breathe. One shudders to think what today’s editors would have done to their stories and what adventures we might have missed.

The writing advice we get from books, magazines, and blogs can be very useful; but I don’t want to pick up a book and have to create my own version of the setting or characters. That’s the writer’s job, not the reader’s. Description, when used judiciously, should slow the reader (not the story) down just a bit. Just long enough to smell the pie, hear the wind howl, or see the main character walk into the room.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thenoveilst
    Sep 29, 2014 @ 13:13:23

    Darn, I hope even one of my books display the msg in the last paragraph 🙂


  2. Helen Pollard
    Sep 29, 2014 @ 17:57:27

    I know writing has to be faster paced nowadays – readers just don’t have the time or patience for too much of the preliminaries, but I agree there is always a place for well-written description. The reader wants some pointers for the direction their imagination takes them, and it would be a shame if action and dialogue completely took over.


  3. trinitygrau
    Oct 03, 2014 @ 04:09:46

    This looks very good, I probably should have read this by now considering some of the other things I have read. (sigh) Ah, well. I’ll have to sniff around.


  4. D.R.Sylvester
    Oct 07, 2014 @ 22:23:59

    Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this. I read somebody talking about The Hobbit before and after the films, and how they couldn’t picture the characters the same way they had as a child. The films had replaced their imaginations so now they only saw Ian McKellen or Elijah Wood. That really made me think: Tolkien described quite a lot in his works, so much that it would have been cut dramatically by any editor today… BUT they weren’t so over-descriptive that you couldn’t imagine those worlds for yourself.

    Point being – I think there’s a line we need to tightrope across as writers, and these days it’s probably about how much desription we can get away with. I figure interspersing it throughout a text, and sticking to the standout features of anything being described, but then later in the text you could have some more extensive description. They’re hooked, they won’t bail now ;D


  5. MJ Belko
    Oct 25, 2018 @ 13:23:54

    Reblogged this on Storyteller and commented:

    Here’s an oldie but a goodie.


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