Another one of Jess’ literary ramblings.
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.
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,