IVP - Addenda & Errata - Take a Moment to Describe

January 31, 2011

Take a Moment to Describe

Of the many things I learned in seminary, several of them were from David Hubbard. One of these I’ve turned into a regular practice. Back in that day Hubbard was president of Fuller Seminary as well as professor of Old Testament. Now, Hubbard was a master of language, and every student knew it. So he had our attention.

It was an aside, probably sparked by an Old Testament wisdom text. Hubbard broke away from Proverbs or Ecclesiastes to speak of the value of effective language in communication.

He encouraged the class to improve our skills in using descriptive language. And he gave us some simple, practical advice: while driving—that mentally idle time between life’s real appointments in Southern California! —we should practice describing what we see, whether it be a tree, a building or a landscape. Over the years I’ve remembered to practice this occasionally. I think it’s a great exercise for writers and speakers. And if you don’t spend much time driving, it’s just as easily practiced while riding the train or walking the dog.

I like to reduce a scene to its barest essentials. Try verbally sketching your subject with haiku strokes of vivid metaphor. Challenge yourself to describe the scene in a fresh, even unusual way. Resist the clotting of excess words—unless it’s a crafted excess that evokes the superabundance of your subject! Experiment. Discard. Revise. Polish.

Here’s one from walking the dog this morning, watching the pre-dawn color over mountains and water. Sort of Yoda-like, don’t you think?

Sanguinary dawn. Bloody is the serrated edge of the Cascades, gun-metal gray the face of the deep.

This exercise might not turn you into a Hemingway, but it is sure to hone your attentiveness to language, to sharpen your descriptive skill and make you a better writer or speaker. Even if your writing is mostly academic, the striking image or metaphor can elevate your prose above the quotidian drone.

Posted by Dan Reid at January 31, 2011 3:45 PM Bookmark and Share


That is one dark and gruesome dawn. Sounds like an opening to a novel about a psycho-killer. Have you considered sleeping in a little more often? Or maybe letting someone else take the dog on its morning walks?


Comment by: Dave at February 1, 2011 3:57 PM

Dave, I was thinking a cosmic crime had taken place in the wee morning hours. I'm not usually so gruesome, but yesterday--yes.

Comment by: Dan Reid at February 1, 2011 5:55 PM

Very cool. A cosmic crime would make an even more interesting novel, especially if the protagonist turns out to be a psycho-killer.

Comment by: Dave at February 1, 2011 7:54 PM

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