The Nondecriptness of Nondescript

I got into a foolish discussion in an online writers’ group about the word “nondescript.” Frankly, it’s one of those adjectives that writers are so fond of that I have no use for because it doesn’t describe anything, doesn’t give us a feeling for who or what the thing being described is. In the discussion, a woman chastised me for getting the definition of nondescript wrong, even though I did not define the word. (Nondescript means lacking distinctive characteristics; ordinary, which is how I used the term.) To an author, to an observant human being, nothing is nondescript. There is always a distinguishing characteristic that makes a thing or person distinct from its fellow.

She gave the example of a gray wall. But the truth is, even a gray wall is not nondescript. A blank gray wall is gray, which in itself is a distinctive characteristic because how many gray walls do you see in a day? Not all grays are the same, anyway. It could be a bright silvery gray or a matte finish that seems to absorb all light. And that gray could be paint or paper, which further defines the characteristic of the wall. And if it has no finish but is unpainted gray cinder block, then that too is a distinctive characteristic. And where that gray wall is located further defines the characteristic because a gray wall in a hospital gives a completely different feel from a gray wall in bedroom.

Is anything anywhere in the world so ordinary that it lacks a distinguishing feature? An ordinary-looking fellow is not a clone of other ordinary-looking fellows. (And if you saw the movie Multiplicity, you will realize that even clones develop distinctive characteristics.) There is always something that sets a so-called ordinary person apart even if a cursory glance doesn’t show you what that something is. It could be a gait, a tie askew, eyes too close together, anything at all. Even twins each have their own distinguishing characteristics, at least to the people who know them well.

That’s what we writers do: look for those things that other people’s eyes glide over. It’s also why long descriptions are unnecessary. You look for the distinguishing characteristic — the defining characteristic — that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and that single characteristic tells us all we need to know about whatever it is that is being described. Maybe there is a fingerprint on that otherwise pristine gray wall or a crack at the base, which would tell us something about the person who owns that wall. Maybe there is a stain on the carpet or a strong smell of spice in a supposedly featureless motel room. As someone who has spent a lot of time in motel rooms, I can vouch for the fact that every one of them is different. Every one of them has a defining characteristic.

To call something ordinary or nondescript or featureless is to be unobservant. Sometimes it is hard to tell one rose on a bush from another, but no rose is ordinary. No sunset is ordinary. No ocean wave is ordinary. No full moon is ordinary. No person is ordinary.

Why would anyone ever call anything nondescript? To do so is to ignore the remarkable fact of our very existence.

There is an ongoing movement among authors to shoulder the responsibility of presenting the issues of today, to be inclusive of all marginalized folks, but that is being simplistic. The responsibility of authors is to show us jaded folk things we might not otherwise be aware of, things that might otherwise escape our attention, things that show us the truth — that nothing is ordinary. Nothing lacks distinctive characteristics. Nothing is nondescript.

Apparently, nondescript is a recurring issue with me because I found other blog posts I wrote about the same topic: Describing the Nondescript and Adding “Script” to “Nondescript”.

So today, indulge me in this one thing and help me celebrate the uniqueness — the non-nondescriptness — of us all.

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Describing the Nondescript

Lately I’ve been coming across the word “nondescript” in novels. “Nondescript” is a perfectly ordinary word and shouldn’t raise my hackles, but it does. Most recently, I found this: “He caught a glimpse of a man running out of an alley, dressed like a local in nondescript clothes,” and what should have been a tense moment turned into one of cogitation. What are nondescript clothes? Since this story was taking place in Brazil, are Brazilian nondescript clothes the same as those in Thailand or Canada or the United States? Was he wearing baggy white cotton pants and a loose-fitting top?  Was he wearing jeans and a tee shirt? Shorts and a polo shirt? A suit and tie?

The author was a writer (not as much of an oxymoron as one might think since celebrity authors so often have someone else do their writing) and should have been able to come up with some way of describing the nondescript. Perhaps she could have said, “he was dressed like a local in loose white clothes.” Or she could have said, “He was dressed like a local in jeans and a bright-colored shirt.” Or he was dressed like a local in . . . well, no need to go on. You get the picture. Which is exactly the problem with “nondescript.” You don’t get a picture. You get a weasel word that fills space but gives you no idea of what to imagine.

I checked my manuscripts, and to my chagrin, I discovered I used “nondescript” twice. In Daughter Am I, I wrote, Mary glanced from Iron Sam to Tim then back at the road, goose bumps stippling her arms. How odd to think this nondescript bit of tarmac bound the three of them together. Actually, that’s not a bad use of nondescript, because how does one describe a stretch of tarmac on a interstate? Perhaps “ordinary” would have been a better word choice. Or perhaps I could have left off the adjective and just said, How odd to think this bit of tarmac bound the three of them together.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I wrote: The bartender, a lank-haired individual with grooves of discontent etched on his otherwise nondescript face, continued to polish a glass. Hmmm. There is a bit of an image here, but still, I could have found some bit of description for his face. Or maybe not. Faces do tend to blend one into the other. Still, “undistinguished” would have been a better word choice.

At least I got rid of “nondescript car.” My hero in More Deaths Than One bought an old beat-up Volkswagen, and I called it nondescript. At one time such a car might have been nondescript, but now? Yikes — such a car would have attracted attention. Better for him to have bought a white sedan that looked like half the cars on the road.

So, this is my point: if you’re a writer, rethink “nondescript.” I’m sure you can come up with a bit of description to show that the nondescript isn’t so nondescript after all.