Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Turn an Editor’s Head the Wrong Way

I’ve already mentioned (Apr. 3, 2013 blog post) the harm plantations of dialogue tags can cause when allowed to infest our work, so here’s to moving on to another standout.

Wardrobe reports. I see this even in work published by well-known houses (but not by your better authors). A wardrobe report is when you introduce a character and immediately describe their clothing in the form of a report. It’s also done with facial features, bone structure, etc.

 I can’t help but think of a police report when I read these descriptive paragraphs.

Not always, but often you can spot an upcoming wardrobe report when you see the word “wore.” She wore, he wore—these are a dead giveaway to an author’s newbie ranking and a boring way to introduce a character’s style of dress.

Celia’s face showed anguish that betrayed her attire: a long yellow gown flaring out below her knees, a diamond brooch beneath the left spaghetti strap, and silver shoes, probably a Prada knockoff. Over her shoulder she wore a chiffon scarf that you could see right through. (Hello – all chiffon is sheer.)

Although the paragraph above gives a clear picture of what Celia looks like, it’s not as interesting as it could be if the same details came out during some action on Celia’s part. Readers like movement. Unless you just walked into a room where a spotlight is shining down on someone who is standing completely still (in which case it would make sense to focus solely on the looks, because that’s the purpose of the spotlight), you will want to know what’s going on with this person, regardless of how they are dressed. Yes, the attire adds to your overall assessment of the character, but not as much as it would when viewing the same articles of clothing delivered in prose with some action.

Celia’s gaze darted from one face to another, her glimmering yellow gown swaying above silver Prada knockoffs with each delicate step. She stopped in the foyer, her brows furrowing. Her hand flew to the diamond brooch pinned beneath a spaghetti strap, and her mouth formed a perfect O. She adjusted the chiffon scarf around her shoulders, a timid smile struggling on her lips.

While not perfect, the second version gives a stronger sense of what Celia is feeling and yet doesn’t rob us of any details about her clothing. This paragraph is more interesting because there’s movement in it. She is doing something – taking delicate steps, stopping in the foyer, furrowing her brows, touching her brooch and trying to put on a smile.

Unless your characters are standing on a lighted runway, or in a situation where readers expect to stop and stare in awe, don’t give a wardrobe report. Give us action, no matter how minor. Action doesn’t have to be swinging from a rope and landing in a burning building. Action can be tiptoeing to a bed made up with blankets to match the character’s bunny-patterned pajamas. As long as it’s action, you can’t go wrong. You’ll keep readers watching if you keep your character doing something.

Go through your writing and watch for the word “wore.” Rewrite the description without that nasty word. Play around a bit and see if you can come up with a better way to give readers an experience of what the character is doing or feeling while you dress them up in stylish or tattered clothing. I’ll bet you’ll like your new descriptions.




  1. You're right ... come to think of it, wardrobe reports (writing) do sound like police reports. Will have to be careful and not fall into the easy writing trap. Thanks, Deb.

  2. Such an excellent post, Debi! I've had to learn the same lesson the hard way, and I still have to catch myself from time to time. "Thanks so much for spotlighting this topic," he said, straightening his new red bow tie. :-)