I was reading a book at the weekend that described someone as wearing “a nondescript hat”, and it reminded me of how the word “nondescript” should have no place in fiction writing.
“Nondescript” means “lacking distinct or individual characteristics; having no outstanding features”.
But everything has distinct and individual characteristics. Colour. Shape. Size. Material. Weight. Quality. If you can see something then by definition it must be different from its surroundings, and therefore it must have at least one distinct characteristic.
“But what if it’s something that’s really commonplace, that just doesn’t look out of the ordinary at all, and you want to highlight that? Like some kind of hat, perhaps?” you might ask, as you brush toast crumbs from the crotch of your faded pyjamas and wonder whether it’s about time you got yourself a job.
Some kind of hat, you say? Well then, let’s see, shall we?
Example 1: “He was a tall man, and whether it was rainy or fine he habitually wore a nondescript hat.”
Example 2: “He was a tall man, and whether it was rainy or fine he habitually wore a plain brown hat.”
Come on. Don’t try to kid yourself that “nondescript” is a word that tells the reader something. It doesn’t. It can’t. “Nondescript” is just an adjective to use when you can’t think of a decent adjective. It’s a descriptor that doesn’t describe. It’s an anti-adjective.
Nothing in the universe is nondescript. Really, it isn’t. If you find something that is then it just means that you’ve reached the limits of your imagination.
So if you’re a writer and you label something as nondescript then you’re either not very good or you’re just being lazy. You’re a writer – the whole point of what you do is to describe things.
So do it!
It always seems to be hats that are nondescript. What is it about the hat that causes writers temporarily to lose their descriptive powers? What dread hold has the titfer over the author? Sadly I fear that we may never know.