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.

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5 Responses to “Describing the Nondescript”

  1. Sonia Lal Says:

    I haven’t run across that word a whole lot. Hmm. I don’t think I use it much.

  2. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Thanks Pat. Another word to eliminate as I edit the manuscript–though I think your nondescript road works okay since you’re in her head and that’s what she’s thinking. I love your “You don’t get a picture” comment–describes nondescript description perfectly.

  3. Describing a Scene Through the Eyes of a Character | Bertram's Blog Says:

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