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Friday, August 1, 2014

Writing Tips: Describing Amounts

A fair amount of writers tend to write like very passively. Instead of proclaiming bold statements of events past, they merely suggest something might have happened. We see this with passive voice, adverbs, elongated sentences, etc.

Another place I've seen this, is in describing amounts. And yes, dear reader, I have done this as well, one hundred and one times, at least.

There are three tiers to describing amounts: vague guesses, rough estimates and exact amounts.

You may never have thought about this, but when you describe an object that is numerous or numerable, it could be described in one of the three aforementioned ways.

I will tell you this right off the bat: The more specific, the more believable. Don't believe me? Roughly half of you won't. But when I illustrate the point, you just might become a believer.

VAGUE GUESSES

Vague guesses are the worst, most passive way to describe a group of things. An example of this, is the very beginning of this post when I said "a fair amount." What exactly does that mean? What constitutes fair?

You see, you may have read right over it, but you had no clue as to what that actually meant. And if you (as the writer) don't know what that meant, neither will your reader.

The problem is that there is no concrete idea here. Without a mental picture, the words are really just filler. Now, I have done this, and after reading the statements later on, I realized how weak they were. It's really just a writer's crutch of not actually describing anything.

Avoid these at all costs, if possible (and it should definitely be possible).

Here are a few examples.
  • A fair amount
  • A good deal
  • quite a bit
  • some distance

Think about this for a moment: If I say that something is "a good deal away", is it five feet or five hundred? Exactly.

ROUGH ESTIMATES

These are much better, and stronger than vague guesses. I would recommend that if you can't at least use specific amounts, use these.

A rough estimate is exactly that: It's you, as the writer, telling the reader, that heck - even you don't know the precise amount or location of a given time, place or object. And you know, it happens. I believe that we, the writers, don't even know the full story until it's told, so this situation does happen. I've even seen even the best writers use these.

Rough estimates give an idea of something, without complete accuracy, leaving room for error. Again, the problem here is that it can lead to weak writing if you, as the writer, NEVER know anything, because well, you should know MOST. (again another estimate)

I suggest that when you use these, you use them sparingly.

Examples:
  • Roughly...
  • Nearly...
  • Almost...
  • about...
  • Something like...
  • Most of/some of/a little bit of/ a lot of...
  • A few...
Then these are followed by some extreme, number, fraction or percent, describing a noun.

Estimates are better for the sole fact that you can picture them. At the top, I said "roughly half of you." You can picture half of a group, probably people divided in a room or something similar. At least with these, the reader has a clue, but it's not the best it can be.

EXACT/PRECISE AMOUNTS

These are absolutely best. When I was in marketing, I learned that exact amounts make things credible, and I've seen the proof. If someone says they make 1,000 a day, it sounds fake. But if I say I made $1,387.94 yesterday, it seems real.

Why?

Because it FEELS real. It doesn't have to be, well not in fiction, at least. But when you see something that is spelled out, you can SEE it in your head. The combination of seeing and feeling something, makes it more credible.

And isn't that our goal as fiction writers? To make our story feel credible? Like it could happen? That our characters could or do exist, somewhere out in the multiverse?

To Prove my point, compare these two identical statements:

Linda had a few bills in her purse, just enough to buy a new pair of shoes.

AND

Linda had three $20 bills in her purse, just enough to buy a new pair of shoes.

In the first example, we not only have to guess what "a few" is, but we also have to figure out what each bill is worth.

The second example not only tells us she has $60, but that the pair of shoes she wishes to buy is somewhere under that.

See my point yet?

This is the strongest type of description as it gets. Use this all the time when you can, but be careful... it is easy to go overboard. I have seen dozens of writers take this role too seriously, and describe every facet on a piece of volcanic rock. *Okay, that last sentence was made up, but you get the picture (because I described it to you. I'm boss like that.) 

Here are Examples:
  • Specific Distance (20 feet, 71 yards, 2.4 miles, 1/4 mile)
  • Specific Days (Monday March 13th, Sunday 1:07pm)
  • Specific Amounts ($9.37, 51 gallons, 12.6 cups, 61% capacity)
This also goes for weight, height, etc. Pretty much anything (another vague statement BTW) that can be measured in some way.

COMPARISON AMOUNTS

There's also the business of comparing items, such as "as numerous as the sand on the sea shore." The best advice I can give for this is to compare things that are already easily visible. In this case, we get the idea that whatever that object is, it's basically like counting stars. It's impossible.

If you don't know exactly, or have reason to specify in this case, try to  find a visual representation that will resonate with some specific number. i.e. "as many ships as there were continents."

All in all, we should be striving to create stronger sentences, and better written prose. Don't be afraid of your own story; embrace it. Know it. Learn it. Give the reader pictures to remember.

I wish you the best of luck, and much stronger writing in the future.

- Coty Schwabe

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