Convictions & Comforts · Writing Snippets & Exercises

Nondescript

I just updated my Facebook status to this:

Catherine Cookson ≠ Jane Austen, foolish citizens of YouTube. Take Dickens’ most depressing and inconclusive novel, sans the moral commentary, add a dash of illiteracy, a penchant for illegitimate heroines who can’t make any good decisions and you have a Catherin Cookson drama. It’s like meshing Wuthering Heights with Great Expectations. No. Thanks.

Then I started rambling in the comment section of my own status and I thought to myself, “Who will actually want to read all this broken up in little pieces? (Or at all.) I should ramble on my blog!” And I said, “TO THE BLOG!” and I came to my blog. Here I am, then! Hullo, bloggers!

The rest of my words would have been like these…

On the first page of one of her novels, Cookson has this to say:

She also shut out the face of her seventeen-year-old daughter, her plain, nondescript daughter.

Bethie does not like. Do not tell us the girl is seventeen and plain and then say she’s nondescript. You just described her! Very poorly, I admit, but the fact that she is plain already begins a description.

“Nondescript” is a lazy term and I hate it. Nothing is nondescript to a writer, and seeing it on the page feels rather insulting to me as a reader. The word “nondescript” in my mind comes across as “I’m too darned lazy to take the effort to really describe this character and his/her surroundings” or “I’m bored with my own story so I threw this word in it to get on with it.” It conveys no pride or passion for your writing, sad authors who use it!

It’s such a stupid word. One of the definitions I found for it says:

2. undistinguished or uninteresting; dull or insipid: The private detective deliberately wore nondescript clothes.*
Do you see what’s so ridiculous about it? If, by definition, “nondescript” means dull or uninteresting, you’re actually describing the thing by calling it “not easy to describe.” How contradictory! How utterly uninspired!

If writers are using the term “nondescript” as a way to say their fictional person, place, or thing is “not easy to describe” I’d like to ask them one very simple, yet striking question…

Why did you become a writer, then??

No, really! I’d like to know! Of course there are going to be things that aren’t easy to describe! That’s the whole reason and joy and bittersweet zest derived from writing! If everything was easy to describe, there would be nothing special about a good book. Such fewlishness!

I propose that instead of using “nondescript” every time we come across something uninteresting or hard to describe, we describe it anyway. Just because the thing is uninteresting doesn’t mean your writing has to be.

How about these…

The girl was so plain and ordinary looking that her features are hardly worth mentioning.

or…

I suppose she was tolerable to look upon–indeed, many were far uglier, there being nothing remarkable at all in her face or form.

To be fair, I haven’t read a full Cookson novel. With my schedule the way it is now I barely have time for the best literature, let alone a curiosity read. I have been watching the movie versions of her stories on YouTube when I have a few hours to myself and they mostly just annoy me. So it comes to no real surprise that her writing does too.

And while we’re on the subject, The Tide of Life traumatized me when I was younger. I recall that the only character I was fond of got murdered by a huge hook on a crane-type-thing being swung into his face. It was one of those moments where less was more and what they didn’t show scarred me for life. But before you get ideas, that does not work the same way in writing! You can be vague and make the reader exercise his own imagination to create a horrifying scene, but that does not, under any circumstance justify the word “nondescript.” Hateful word.

The only two things I will allow to be called “nondescript” are Bella Swan’s personality and the books that contain the word “nondescript.” The first does not exist and therefore has no proper description, and the other condemns itself.

P.S. Generally, things that don’t exist should still be described. In fact, if you made something up it’s even more important to describe it and describe it well. I mean to use the term in regards to Bella Swan’s personality as the ultimate insult. As one, Horatio Hornblower would say, “You’re not worth the powder.” Words are my powder. And SMeyer and her creations are not worth mine.

~B~

P.P.S. I do realize I put the P.S. before my initial. Yep.

*Dictionary.com Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.

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7 thoughts on “Nondescript

  1. ** This is not an argument; simply analysis, and cause. Essays do this to you.

    I agree with you completely and fully that the word nondescript is a lame, careless attempt at describing anything.

    However, there are some who may argue that the word nondescript should be used in language. Naturally, the word nondescript doesn’t imply much, but when used in the above sentence may be intentionally describing a carelessness, or a lazy feeling, that the author wishes to convey. In addition, “plain,” the other word used to describe her, is also a word that doesn’t imply much either, and perhaps that is how the author wished it to be.

    (Concession & Rebuttal 101. These are just some thoughts that I had, as I’m training my brain to see all of the deeper angles of every issue. While I think that everything you said is true, I also think that there is merit to the other stuff. Yes, I have spent too much time in Composition 1 Love you…)

    1. Yeah, I can see that. I still maintain my original dislike of the word in general, but I get the point there.

      Nice essayish rebuttal. ;)

      Also, sorry it took me so long to approve your comment! I wasn’t hesitating, just preoccupied with work. :P

  2. It’s cool. I agree with that… maybe a little less strongly, because I can see the concession points well. But you should maintain your view of it.

    Thank you!

    It’s cool.

  3. Hmm… I kind of disagree. To me, calling someone or something “nondescript” means… well, exactly what the word means. It doesn’t mean they’re hard to describe or that they have *no* description. It means that they are indistinguishable from their surroundings or their peers. They blend in; they’re boring and insipid and no one notices them. They’re wallflowers.

    Of course, you can use any of those words I just used in nondescript’s place, but I don’t think it particularly denotes that an author is lazy just because they use the term. It might seem like a contradictory word on the surface, but I don’t think that it is.

    Then again, I am always careful to go by the dictionary’s definition of the word, and if I don’t exactly know what it means, I look it up. If I weren’t a word-nerd, I might use nondescript because I thought it meant “hard to describe”, but in fact, “hard to describe” is not the meaning of nondescript. As you pointed out, it means “of no recognized, definite, or particular type or kind; undistinguished or uninteresting; dull or insipid;lacking distinct or individual characteristics; having no outstanding features”

    To me, it’s just a word. Lazy authors are more prone to not describing things at all- such as Ms Meyers in describing Bella’s mother by saying “she looks just like me,” except… we have no physical description of Bella until much, much later. That’s lazy, to me. And unprofessional. ;)

    Also, I think that lazy authors use curse words and sex scenes because they don’t have big enough vocabularies or good enough plots.

    1. I seee what you mean, and I do know what the literal meaning of the word is. I just simply cannot stand it myself. It feels wrong to me.

      And yes, I have to agree with you about SMeyer’s writing. I read an author’s bio once in which the author was quoted as saying, “I don’t like reading novels where the girls are always going on about what they’re wearing in every chapter.” (Not an exact quote, but close enough.) I only agreed a little. If you want to focus on something other than clothes, that’s fine, but I love me some lengthy descriptions!

      Good point at the end, there! Although I have read a few novels where the swearing came from a character and I appreciated the more “appropriate” use of such language. It wasn’t just thrown in willy nilly.

  4. I generally don’t believe in “bad” words (well – except for curse words). All words, in my opinion, are fair game. I myself have never used the word “nondescript”, but I don’t have anything against it.

    Still, I definitely understand what you’re saying. Nondescript is a very abstract word, and good writers use concrete words, not abstract ones, as often as possible. I would like to say that nondescript does have its time and place, and it’s not in literature – but I always hesitate to be so final and definite. I can’t recall ever actually coming across the word in a book, so I don’t know for sure how I’d react to it.

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