Descriptive Writing

In Make Your Words Work (Writer’s Digest Books), author Gary Provost cautions against telling readers things they already know:

The reader’s brain holds an enormous catalog of pictures. He has seen an infinity of images on television and in movies, photographs, and real life. He knows how a vast number of things function, how they relate to one another. You don’t have to describe them all. . . . When you are describing things and places the reader has seen, keep description short by reminding him of the pictures he has on file. When you are describing things and places the reader has not seen, keep description short by using pieces of the pictures he has on file to create new pictures.

The idea is this: Thoughtfully and judiciously select the details you want to include in your description so that you paint–with a minimum of strokes–an accurate and lively picture in your reader’s mind.

Using Detail in Your Writing

Speaking of word pictures, let’s defer one more time to Gary Provost:

If your goal were simply to show the reader a picture, you could describe the weight of an object, or its color, or its texture–almost any fairly vivid detail and the reader would see it. But writing that works doesn’t just show the reader a picture. It also gets him to look at it in a certain way.

The effective use of detail is what separates ho-hum description–that which merely informs–from dazzling description that puts your reader smack in the middle of the place you are describing, experiencing with you the feeling of being there. Don’t waste details on things your reader already knows (or doesn’t need to know). You don’t, for example, need to describe every detail about a rosebush for your reader to know what you’re talking about, and you certainly don’t need to include the scientific name of the bush and a detailed breeding history (unless you’re writing for a horticultural magazine). But if the rosebush you’re describing is in a place that makes you happy, you may choose to describe its lush color or its remarkable fragrance when it is in full bloom. On the other hand, if the rosebush in question is associated with unpleasant memories, it may serve the overall description better if you described the rosebush in decline–dry, thorny and smelling of decay.

The amount and “size” of detail you use will depend in part on whether you are describing a broad place (Pittsburgh) or a narrow place (your grandmother’s hospital room). A big picture requires broad descriptive strokes. You’ll never get the “idea” of Pittsburgh across to your reader if you lay out the whole city block by block. Instead, you’ll want to step back and try to capture the larger images that bring the city to mind–the traffic, perhaps, or the rivers or the abandoned steel mills. On the other hand, your grandmother’s hospital room can withstand closer scrutiny–the pattern on the sheets, the antiseptic smell, even the dust on the window blinds may be important details.

Remember that description is a subjective process. People can be in the same place at the same time and come away with completely different impressions. Consider two patients in a doctor’s waiting room. One is a happy expectant mother waiting for a prenatal exam, the other is a harried male executive who has been experiencing chest pains. Both of them will go home later and describe the waiting room to their respective spouses. Do you think they will both talk about the same things? Of course not. Their perception of their surroundings, and their descriptions of them, will be colored by their own emotions and circumstances. The young mother may remember the cheerful music that was piped in (maybe she even hummed along) or the color of the wallpaper (perfect for the nursery). The businessman, on the other hand, may have been struck by a poster listing the warning signs of heart disease (he’s experienced every single one), or noticed that all of the magazines were old and gathering dust (just like he feels he is). They may even choose the same details, but respond to them differently: The mother describes the Muzak as “perky,” the businessman recalls “annoying.”

Word Choice

Another way to evoke mood or emotion in your description is by careful consideration of the words you use. Let’s consider a place that provides a common frame of reference–a kitchen–and provide some general details:

an open refrigerator

a sink with some unwashed dishes in it

a table with an unfinished meal

a broken wine glass

an overturned chair

Now let’s turn this kitchen into a specific place, a place that has a story to tell:

The refrigerator door hung partially open, washing the room in feeble light that turned everything in its path a sickly green. Yesterday’s dishes festered in the sink, slick with dishwashing liquid but still unwashed. Dinner–a congealing mess that was once garlic and lemon chicken–lay untouched under the burnt-out stubs of candles. Under the table shards of glass gleamed dangerously as a stain dark as blood spread its way across the floor, away from the disaster on the table and the overturned chair in front of it, toward the hallway and the pitch black bedroom beyond.

Here’s the same kitchen, same details, very different story:

The candles had long since flickered out; but light spilled from the open refrigerator, making the whole kitchen look as if it were under water. In the sink, dishes shiny with Joy teetered, waiting to be washed. The pungent odors of lemon and garlic filled the air, not surprising considering the chicken was still slightly warm from the oven. Diamond bits of glass sparkled in a pool of wine red as fire that was even now making its way from the untouched meal on the table and the hastily overturned chair in front of it, toward the hallway and the darkened bedroom beyond.

Granted, these examples are bit exaggerated, but you can easily see the difference word choice makes in these two descriptions. Without introducing any characters, without depicting any action, we have evoked a sense of two very different places–one sinister, perhaps the site of unexpected violence, the other filled with anticipation and the possibility of spontaneous passion. Yet both include exactly the same details.

These tips came from the course Getting Started in Writing

Do you have an aptitude for writing that you’ve never had a chance to develop? Perhaps you write memos and reports for work, but yearn to try something more creative. In this workshop, you will explore your writing interests and discover your personal aptitudes for writing. You will be introduced to a wide variety of categories of writing, and learn basic techniques to improve your narrative skills.

You will learn:

  • The fundamentals of grammar and mechanics
  • Using description and sensory detail to enhance your writing
  • How the principles of creative writing apply to both fiction and nonfiction
  • The types of short nonfiction, including fillers, research articles, personal experience articles, how-to articles, books, and memoirs
  • The different categories (genres) of fiction, and the various fiction forms, including short stories, short-short stories, novellas, and novels
  • The importance of revising and rewriting

Learn More About Getting Started in Writing Today!

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