Ask TON: Nailing Physical Descriptions




Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

“I don’t feel very confident about physical descriptions of sources. When I’m reporting, everyone I meet seems to basically look ‘regular’ to me. It doesn’t seem worth saying that this scientist wears glasses or has smoothly brushed hair or has a kind of large nose. I know I’m supposed to look for physical things that seem to mean something, but I never seem to see such things, at least while interviewing people in offices and labs. What am I doing wrong?”

Emily Anthes, freelance science journalist and author:

First of all, I empathize. In my experience, it’s rare to find a subject whose physical appearance alone is deeply symbolic of some larger theme in the story. Most people are average looking (by definition).

For me, the solution is to give the physical details some context. There are several ways to do this. One technique is to fold a physical detail into a description of someone’s behavior. So, instead of “Dr. Smith had brown eyes,” you could write: “Dr. Smith’s brown eyes brightened as he recalled the discovery.” Or: “As Dr. Smith discussed his critics, his brown eyes narrowed.” Or: “As Dr. Smith stared at the equation, he began pulling at his salt-and-pepper beard.” Or: “Before the meeting, Dr. Smith managed to tame his normally unruly hair.” You get the idea. Embedding a physical detail in a behavioral detail can make an aspect of your subject’s appearance more informative and interesting.

The other approach, which I have also used, is to compare and contrast the appearances of different characters. Maybe your tall, blond source has a short, dark business partner and you can describe them walking down the hall together. Maybe the primary investigator has a lab full of researchers who are all fit and attractive. If the characters in your story look starkly different—or remarkably similar—that can be interesting to note.

Douglas Starr, science journalist, author, and codirector of the Graduate Program in Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University:

I have the same problem. I’m not a visually oriented person, and physical descriptions often escape me. I do a few things to capture physical details. If I’m using a recorder I’ll take a few moments to jot down some visual notes; if I’m taking notes by hand I might ask a less-than-crucial question and take some quick notes during the answer. The best method, I find, is to write down some details immediately after the interview. Those are the descriptors that stayed with you, so they must in some way be the most memorable.

It’s important not to overemphasize description. Elmore Leonard once said that the less physical descriptions the better, and I agree. Readers can get a strong sense of character from a gesture or the bare minimum of distinguishing characteristics. I try to use only those descriptions that matter—either part of an action or as a quick glimpse of character. In a recent magazine piece I’d written an overly long description of a fast-talking Chicago guy, complete with the caricature accent. I scratched that and wrote that he looked like the comedian Dan Aykroyd, with glasses. I think that took care of it.

Virginia Gewin, freelance science writer:

You aren’t doing anything wrong. This is a constant struggle. But looking at the descriptions you mention, there’s one that makes me want to know more: “smoothly brushed hair.” Why would they have smoothly brushed hair? That seems telling of something—a perfectionist, a vain person, OCD? The goal, as I see it, is to capture those essential details that make a person interesting or tease the reader into wanting to know more—rather than focus (distractingly) on a physical feature of no consequence. I’ve got a few tricks to help identify those types of details. First, I take note of the first things I notice about the subject. Later, I ask myself if my first impression of the subject differs wildly from a later opinion? If so, why? What did I get distracted by initially? I also try to look for personality or character traits that translate into physical features. For example, is the person kinetic (muscular), regimented (kempt), musical (calloused hands), insomniac (bags under eyes), a drinker (beer belly), a worrier (furrowed brow)? It’s those little details that will bring a person to life more than the size of their schnoz.

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