About Writing: Preferential Descriptors

Another one of Jess’ literary ramblings.

Preferential Descriptors

Definitions (from Dictionary.com):

preferential (adj.) of or relating to the nature of preference

descriptor (noun) a significant word or phrase used to categorize or describe …

Have you ever run across a situation that you needed to examine and explain, but couldn’t quite find the best words or phrases to do so? Yesterday, while editing, I ran into an issue that I hadn’t yet encountered or even heard about. The author described a scene, then used the word “ugly” to seal the deal. The problem was that the scene she described didn’t amount to ugly in my mind.

I went into great detail to explain why this was a problem. Put simply, that descriptor will not ring true for all readers. But that’s never good enough for me. I need to understand why, and to an extent that I can explain why. As an editor, I don’t make a recommendation I don’t fully understand and can’t discuss with the author. So here we go down the rabbit hole.

As writers, we know we can’t cater to every reader in the world. That’s why “target audience” is such a well-known term in the publishing industry. However, there are simple things we can do to avoid alienating the audience we have reached, those who already have our books in hand.

One tiny detail isn’t enough to kill a reader’s desire to continue reading. Probably. Maybe. Do we want to take the risk?

Aside from stating the scenery was ugly (telling, not showing), the preferential descriptor (I’m going to explain that in a minute) has the potential to read as an immediate contradiction. When that happens, the author loses a bit of the reader’s confidence. If you describe what, in my mind, is a beautiful scene, then tell me it’s ugly, I’m going to doubt your capability to convey what you see.

Don’t allow the reader a moment of doubt if you can possibly help it.

In this case, it can be helped. It’s a small thing, a very minor issue that has the potential to lose readers, especially if it’s done repeatedly. Like looking for modal auxiliary verbs and to be verbs and filter phrases, these descriptors used to convey an opinion of the author or character, especially in such a way as to cause doubt in the reader, need attention. We need to examine our work for weaknesses, and these words or phrases can be an issue. The problem is that there is no (that I know of) definitive rule for dealing with them, or even words or phrases used to easily identify them.

Until I learn otherwise, I’m going to call them preferential descriptors.

My definition:

preferential descriptor-a word or phrase used to describe something or someone with regard to the author’s or character’s opinion.


The sky is beautiful.

In this sentence, the word beautiful is a preferential descriptor. Whether or not the sky is beautiful is debatable. The accuracy of this descriptor is a matter of opinion, of preference. Some readers would find a cloudless blue sky beautiful. Others would find a cloud-filled sky beautiful. Still others would see the beauty of a stormy sky.

The sky is blue.

The word blue is a decisive descriptor. Yes, I made that up, too. But you see my point, yes?

Both sentences are bland and “telly”, but the second remains the stronger sentence because the word used to describe the sky is specific. Beautiful is too vague. If we don’t know what the author or character thinks is beautiful, we can’t possibly know what the beautiful sky looks like. But we all know what a blue sky looks like.

How do we identify preferential descriptors and is it really worth the effort?

The process of spotting these words or phrases is tedious because you have to examine each descriptor in each sentence and ask yourself if it conveys the opinion of the author or POV character or if it’s a decisive description that can’t be argued. Is it worth the effort? Well, how important is it to you that your reader sees the same scene you wrote? Exactly.

The good news is that most of us have learned how to spot telling by now, so this isn’t an issue that comes up often. Just something to think about while editing.

Happy writing and editing,

~ Jess



When does a story end, and how many words do I need to write to get there?

I always try to guess about how long a story will be when I start writing it so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Gotta visualize that finish line. That never works for me.  I’m learning (and it’s hard) that the finish line in writing is an abstract notion comprised of that moment when a story’s conflict reaches resolution. The length is dependent entirely upon how long it takes to get there. Each story has it’s own natural length, and I think that needs to be respected. Though many stories can be expanded to novel length works, I don’t believe all stories should be.

Beginning, Middle, and End

Every story needs a beginning wherein the tone and pov are established. In the beginning, there is a world, some characters, and conflict. Every inch of the story needs conflict; major or minor, internal or external. The beginning of any story sets the stage for the rest. The middle contains more of everything. Setting, conflict, goals, motivations, and building character relationships just to tear them apart, all in the name of character development. The transition from middle to end comes at that WTF moment in the story when the whole world is turned on its ear. At that point the reader, and sometimes the writer, is left with one thought, “What now?!” It’s exciting, and a signal that the end is in sight. At this point, you should be about 3/4 of the way through the story. If you really need to think about word counts, this is a good time to do a quick check. If you’ve got 4,500 words so far, then you’ll probably write another 1,500 to get to the end. This estimate is based on how most of my own stories come out, but my way is not the only way.

Conflict and Resolution

Some folks like to end their stories on a cliffhanger, and I’m not saying that’s wrong, I just don’t like that as a reader. (Note: A new trend in publishing has recently come to my attention wherein excerpts of books are sold as individual books and labeled “series”. As a reader who experienced one of these “books” recently, I felt like I’d been scammed. I won’t buy four books to read one. These books each end in a cliffhanger with no resolution so that you have to buy more books to finish the story. These aren’t books, and the sum of them isn’t a series. More on that at my personal blog.) While you’re at that 3/4 mark, take a moment to make a note of all threads of conflict woven into your story, even the smaller storylines. If you have an idea of how the story will end, make sure each and every one of those is resolved. If you don’t, then just keep them in mind as you write. You can always dot those i’s in the editing phase.

Reverse Engineering

If a novel length work is considered 50k + words, and the end begins at 3/4, then theoretically I should write my beginning in 12,500 words, the middle in 25k words, and then the end in 12,500 words. Now, I’ve tried this approach, and it doesn’t work for me. But armed with some new thoughts on how to proceed with a series, I might give it another go. I could totally write four novelettes that share a major plot thread and character arcs, right? I’ll get back to you on that after I’m done with my current WIP. One thing at a time. In the meantime, if you’ve a tried and true approach to a 50k word count goal, feel free to share tips in the comments.

ABOUT WRITING: Where Do I Begin?

A new Twitter friend asked me a great question today, one I feel compelled to answer better than I possibly could in 140 characters. I’ve written articles about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing, but I’ve skipped right past the most important part! Where do I begin?

I can tell you how I began, and I can make a few suggestions where you could begin. Honestly, though, we all get started with a decision. Some of us have been writing all our lives while others started later than we’d intended. Some crazies (like me) just crawled right out of the woodwork and announced our intention to woo the world with our words. Or as much of the population as will lend us an ear. In any event, each writer makes this decision to write, to actually take themselves seriously as a writer and write.

So they sit at their computer or with their pen and paper and the sexy muse they’ve heard so much about appears, eager to begin their first session. Hahahahah…. Sorry. Ahem. That doesn’t actually happen. Sometimes we get flashes of inspiration, and it’s great, but that can’t be counted upon. While this has more to do with the process than the decision, it’s important in the long run that you understand this now. Before you begin. Once you get over the disappointment of knowing those moments of what seem to be sheer brilliance aren’t, and that they happen less frequently with time, you can open yourself to a deeper kind of love for writing. When you write something, and you know it’s good, there’s no better feeling. There are literally millions of people in the world who won’t think it’s as good as you do. That’s just statistics working against you. Let it go. Reading is subjective, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. My point is, don’t expect brilliance to fly from your fingertips with every writing session, or to be praised by millions when it actually happens (which is rare). Knowing and accepting those two things now will save you a lot of emotional stress in the long run. Again, just something to keep in mind before you begin.

Now, where do I begin?

Okay, there are multiple ways to get started. I’d recommend dipping your toes into many different waters to get a feel for which works for you. If you live near other writers, try forming a group. This is hard because most of us are introverted to at least some degree. 98.2% of my days are spent in my own home. I get grumpy when I have to leave. I’m an extrovert. Go figure. I won’t go into any details about how to make writer friends in the real world (said like someone who doesn’t live in Twitterland) because I didn’t have that kind of experience. That’s not how I started. I can tell you about several online communities that I’ve had the pleasure of running across that have helped me along my path in one way or another. Where you start, and where you go from there, is entirely up to you.

Take a Class

I signed up for a little writing class I could participate in online, Beginning Writer’s Workshop via Ed2Go. Yep, that simple. That’s where I started writing. Our first “assignment” instructed us to make a list of everything we’d ever written; letters, essays, poems, scraps of stories we wrote in fifth grade when we were supposed to be doing homework. All of it. This wasn’t to be turned in, the point was only to show us that we are already writers. Each of us, to some degree, is a writer. Once I accepted that, I thought I was good to go.

Demand Respect

I don’t care who you are or how inexperienced you are, when you’ve made one of your personal goals a priority, then those around you will have to respect that. The first time someone says to you, “Yeah, but you’re not a real writer,” bitch slap them. Repeatedly. Don’t actually do that. Bad advice. Do show them how hurtful/infuriating their lack of faith in you is. Tell them that you will do this, with or without their support. Show them you mean business, and stay the course. You don’t need their respect to be a good writer, but you will need them to respect your writing time and space. People who care about you will respect what’s important to you. Identify the best times of the day for you to write, prioritize your days around those times, and demand respect for your “me time”.

Find a Community

This is really the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer. Find other people like you. (Like me? But, I’m special. There’s no one out there like me.) hahahahah … Ahem. There are hundreds of thousands of people like you. It’ll take some time to find a few, but when you do, it will be worth it. It’s important to remember, though, that these people are your friends, not your customers. Develop friendships with writers who will trade beta reading duties with you, but remember it’s a give and take relationship. Make friends with people who make you happy, and remember that there’s more to life than just writing. If you get super-focused on just one thing, it won’t be fun. For you, or anyone else. Joining a community of writers is a good way to enjoy the process of learning. (Which is, by the way, a life-long process. There’s a lot to this writing thing.)

I’m gonna wrap this up right here with a list of communities I’ve found that I feel comfortable recommending personally. I’m not responsible for these communities, or affiliated with them. I just love ’em. I know I didn’t exactly give you a definitive answer to “Where do I start?”, but there is no one way to do it. You just pick a path and walk it.

WordPress Blogging, in general (Check out The Daily Post for prompts.)

Flash! Friday (a weekly flash fiction challenge)

Writers Cafe (a large, mostly anonymous writing community)

Finish That Thought (a weekly flash fiction challenge)

Thursday Threads (a weekly flash fiction challenge)

Flash Friday dot org (a weekly “share-board”)

Twitter (You don’t actually need me to tell you what this is, do you? Well, okay, I wrote a post about that, too.)