Believe it or not, there are a few writing tips that we writers can steal from athletes, strategies that show us how to stay in shape and on top of our game.
Athletes work hard even when they’re off the field. They spend hours practicing with their teams. They run miles around the track when nobody else is around. They swim the laps, dunk the balls, and sweep their rackets. They do all this so that when it’s time to play, they’ll steal the show and take home the trophy.
We all went to elementary school, where we learned our ABCs and how to diagram a sentence. In high school, we read the classics and wrote the essays. Now we’ve been let loose on the field. We pen articles, publish blogs, peck away at novels, and compose poetry.
So, how do we stay in shape when we’re not dribbling all over the court? Read more
Almost every writer on the planet wants to write a book.
Some have finished a manuscript and others are already published, but many more dream, talk, and think about completing a full draft and seeing their name on a book cover.
Some already have a book in the works while others have several half-finished drafts floating around. Some can’t even get started. They have too many ideas to choose from, or they are waiting for the right idea.
You could spend your whole life waiting. Read more
Here at Writing Forward, we talk about three types of creative writing: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
With poetry and fiction, there are techniques we can use to invigorate our writing, but there aren’t many rules beyond the standards of grammar and good writing in general. We can let our imaginations run wild; everything from nonsense to outrageous fantasy is fair game for bringing our ideas to life when we’re writing fiction and poetry.
However, with creative nonfiction, there are some guidelines that we have to follow. These guidelines aren’t set in stone, and there aren’t any nonfiction police patrolling bookstores, waiting to arrest you if you stray from the guidelines. These guidelines might be considered best practices, except if you violate them, you might find yourself in hot water with your readers.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What sets creative nonfiction apart from fiction or poetry?
For starters, creative nonfiction is factual. A memoir is not just any story; it’s a true story. A biography is the real account of someone’s life. There is no room in creative nonfiction for fabrication or manipulation of the facts.
So what makes creative nonfiction writing different from something like textbook writing or technical writing? What makes it creative?
Nonfiction writing that isn’t considered creative usually has business or academic purposes. Such writing isn’t designed to entertain or even be enjoyable. It’s sole purpose is to convey information, usually in a dry, straightforward manner.
Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, pays credence to the craft of writing, often through literary techniques, which make the prose aesthetically pleasing and bring layers of meaning to the context. It is similar to fiction in that it usually uses a story structure and is written in prose.
There are many different genres within creative nonfiction: memoir, biography, autobiography, and personal essays, just to name a few.
Writing Creative Nonfiction
Here are six simple guidelines to follow when writing creative nonfiction:
- Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberty with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be ridiculed, scrutinized, and you’ll lose credibility. If you can’t help yourself from lying, then think about writing fiction instead.
- Issue a disclaimer. Most nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
- Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction. Some people are extremely private and don’t want any details of their lives published. Others might request that you leave certain things out, which they feel are personal. Otherwise, make sure you’ve weighed the repercussions of revealing other people’s lives to the world. Relationships have been both strengthened and destroyed as a result of authors publishing the details of other people’s lives.
- Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with heavy criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
- Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
- Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.
Do You Write Creative Nonfiction?
I know most of the readers here write fiction and poetry, but I suspect that there are quite a few who either write creative nonfiction or want to try their hands at it. If you are writing creative nonfiction, do you have any guidelines to add to this list? Are there any situations in which it would be acceptable to ignore these guidelines? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
It sounds pretty old fashioned: To whom have you sent those letters? Modern colloquial speakers expect something more along the lines of Who did you send those letters to?
While whom may sound outdated, it is still the technically correct word in certain situations.
In the example above, the second sentence (Who did you send those letters to?) ends a sentence with a preposition, and it uses who incorrectly.
Let’s examine the grammar rules surrounding who vs. whom.
Here are the grammar rules and common practices violated by our example sentence (Who did you send those letters to?):
- It ends with a preposition.
- It uses who where whom is the correct interrogative pronoun
It’s worth noting that many grammarians today say it’s acceptable to end sentences with prepositions. As more and more writers and speakers place prepositions at the end of sentences, the practice becomes more acceptable.
However, we’re not here to talk about prepositions. We’re going to take a look at how to properly use the words who or whom in a sentence.
Interrogative Pronoun! Are You Kidding?
Yeah, I guess it sounds pretty high-brow, and no, I’m not kidding. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not one of those grammar snobs. I do, however, believe that writers who learn the rules can better get away with breaking them. If you’re a writer, then it couldn’t possibly hurt to know what an interrogative pronoun is and how to use it in a sentence, correctly.
Plus, learning about interrogative pronouns will help you know the difference between who vs. whom.
Simply put, an interrogative pronoun is a pronoun that is used in a question. You know these words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Whence and whither are also interrogative pronouns, but I’ll spare you on those. For now.
Who Uses Whom Nowadays?
The word whom seems to have fallen out of favor, although some crotchety old aunt or anal-retentive English teacher might force it into your vocabulary at some point. For all I know, whom could still be used in British English, Canadian English, or Aussie speak. It’s safe to assume that a high profile writing assignment (PhD, anyone?) would require you to adhere to strict rules and to use whom where it would be expected. Also, if you were writing a historical novel or perhaps a fantasy tale with a medieval flair, you’d want to know such things so your characters would have realistic dialogue.
It’s also worth noting that as you learn the correct applications of who and whom, you may acquire a taste for using these words more properly, especially in writing (but probably not so much in your speech).
What’s the Difference between Who and Whom?
First I’ll give you the technical answer, and then I’ll follow up with a trick to help you remember whether to use who or whom in your own sentence crafting.
- Who refers to the subject of a sentence, while whom refers to the object.
Yep, it’s that simple.
I see you.
In the sentence above, I is the subject and you is the object. I always remember subject as the giver (or doer of an action) and object as the receiver (of an action). In this example, I am doing the action (seeing) and you are receiving the action (getting seen). Now let’s replace the subject and object with an interrogative pronoun.
When the subject is an interrogative pronoun, use who.
Since who is the proper interrogative pronoun for representing a sentence’s subject, you could say:
Who sees you?
(I do. I see you.)
When the object of a sentence is an interrogative pronoun, use whom.
I see whom? or Whom do I see?
(I see you.)
The following sentences would be incorrect: Who do I see? Whom sees you?
Quick Trick for Remember Who vs. Whom
Some months ago, while listening to Grammar Girl (one of my favorite podcasts), I picked up a neat little trick for remembering when to use who vs. whom. Both whom and him are pronouns that end with the letter m. So, all you do is remove the interrogative pronoun and replace it with he or him.
If you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with him, then you should use whom:
I see whom?
I see him.
Whom did I see?
I saw him.
But if you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with he, then you should use who:
Who saw me?
He saw me.
Grammar sure is fun.
Do you ever struggle with whether to use who or whom in a sentence? Got any tips or tricks for remembering who vs. whom? Leave a comment, and keep sticking to those grammar rules!
The biggest selling books in the world are nonfiction and children’s books, but in the adult fiction categories, romance tops the list, outselling every other genre. And romance readers are voracious — I’ve heard that many romance readers consume a book a day.
The main rule of the romance genre is the happy ending. These stories tend to conclude with a couple figuratively walking into the sunset, hand-in-hand.
But not all real-life or fictional love stories end with a happy couple. Romeo and Juliet immediately springs to mind as a love story with a tragic ending. Even though it’s a wildly romantic tale, we’d never put it in the romance category because it doesn’t have the requisite happy ending.
I have to admit, I think it’s sort of bizarre that we’ve created an entire genre of storytelling where the ending is basically guaranteed. But many romance novels aren’t exclusively about romance. Cross-genre stories meld romance with science fiction or fantasy, and historical romances have always been popular. Some of these work very well because there’s there’s another plot running alongside the romance, and we don’t know how that secondary plot is going to end.
Amorous Fiction Writing Prompts
Today’s fiction writing prompts are designed to spark ideas for writing either a romance or a love story. Some of these prompts encourage you cross genres.
- Two characters are at odds with each other because they want the same thing, but only one of them can have it. The thing they want could be a job, winning a contest or sporting event, or they could be on separate quests for a priceless artifact. How do these two end up falling in love, and how does the competition affect their romance?
- Explore a relationship between two people who are married for some reason other than love. Maybe they were in love when they married but now they’re not. Maybe they’re in an arranged marriage. Maybe they married for practical reasons, such as merging two kingdoms or a shared political or business goal.
- Write a story about a human character falling in love with an alien or magical creature that is not human.
- The idea of casting a love spell on someone is unethical because it takes away that person’s free will. The love is therefore not real. Write a story about a character who casts a love spell on another character.
- What happens when characters who are mortal enemies fall in love?
- They say love is blind, and it makes people do strange things. Write about a character who is blinded by love or who does strange or dangerous things for the object of his or her desire.
- Write about a relationship that is genuine and passionate but doesn’t work out in the end, either because tragedy strikes or because circumstances separate the characters and they cannot be together.
- In biblical times, men had many wives and most marriages were arranged. Use time travel to develop a story that depicts how love, romance, and marriage have changed throughout the centuries.
- Love and fear: two emotions that contradict each other. Love should be safe and warm, everything that fear is not. But what happens when two people who are in love find themselves facing a devastating, life-threatening danger? Do they ultimately fend for themselves or risk their safety for each other?
- Write a story that examines traditional gender roles within a marriage. Traditionally, women stayed home to tend to the home and children while men were the breadwinners. What does it look like when a couple bucks these traditional roles? What if one or both wants a traditional marriage but circumstances prevent them from achieving that (maybe the woman earns more than the man, and they need her income)? What if one or both does not want a traditional marriage (maybe the man wants to tend to the home)?
I hope you enjoyed these fiction writing prompts for crafting romance and love stories. Let us know how these worked out for you by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Have you ever put a project on hold because your writing skills weren’t up to par yet? Do you ever set ideas aside because they seem too ambitious and you don’t feel ready to tackle them? Have you ever wondered how to improve your writing so you would be better equipped to handle more complex and advanced writing projects and ideas?
I’ve experienced all these situations at various stages in my development as a writer, and I’ve learned that I’m not alone. A lot of writers talk about ambitious projects they’ve put on hold because they aren’t yet skilled enough.
If we keep practicing the craft and getting better at it, someday we’ll be ready to dive into writing projects that are beyond our current skill level.
Choosing Your Path
A few years ago, I started writing a novel that was going to be packed with interesting characters, full of exciting twists and turns, and set in a vivid, mysterious story world. I wrote character sketches, crafted pages upon pages of world-building, wrangled reams of research, and delved into extensive narrative. I ended up writing about a quarter of a million words over two and a half years — yes, a quarter of a million words! — before realizing that something vital was missing. There was no story, no rising action that led to a climax with a satisfying conclusion. The characters were just bumbling around in this world I had created for them. Some of what I wrote was pretty good, but I was devastated when I realized how many words I had written yet how far I was from a workable draft.
I paused to assess the situation and decided that most of the material I had generated was usable. There were hints of plot here and there; it could be worked into a series. I toyed with it a little more and saw a viable story emerging but there were too many threads, too many characters, and I simply wasn’t up to the task for no other reason than I didn’t have the storytelling chops for a story as complex as the one I’d been building.
It would have been easy to give up at that point, to say maybe writing a novel isn’t for me. Instead, I decided to set this project aside and try something a little simpler. Of course, the book I ended up writing turned out be more complex than I intended, but it was a lot simpler than the one I had put on the back burner.
How to Improve My Writing
I usually don’t think it’s a good idea to give up on a project. It’s too easy for us writers to get tempted away from our current project by some dazzling new idea, and it’s too easy for anyone to give up on art when things get difficult (like when we’re writing that messy middle). But we also need to know when to quit — or in my case, hit the pause button.
I still dabble on that project every now and then, and it’s coming along. Someday, perhaps in a few years, I’ll bring it back to center stage and it will get written. In the meantime, here are some things I’m doing to prepare myself for when that day comes:
- Develop books that fit with my current skill level, and try to make each project a little more challenging than the last.
- Accept that mastering the craft of writing can take a lifetime. Gear up for the long haul.
- Re-commit to improving my writing. I made this commitment years ago, and eventually got really good at what I do. But there’s still room for improvement.
- Do the work. It’s called work for a reason. Yes, many parts of the writing process are fun, but I’ve got to push myself through the parts that are not.
- Continue studying storytelling through various mediums.
- Slow down. These days, many writers, especially in the self-publishing realm, are cranking out books as fast as they can. Give the book the time it needs to reach completion.
- Develop, draft, polish, and publish. Then do it again.
- Read, read, read.
How to Improve Your Writing
If you set out to improve your writing, your list will probably look different than mine. Where I really need to build my strengths is in storytelling. I have plenty of writing experience but most of it hasn’t been with writing fiction. You might need to work on fostering the habit of writing every day, or maybe you need to strengthen your grammar skills.
Each of us is on our own path. We have different methods and processes, different ideas and tastes, and different goals. Figure out what you need and what works best for you, and keep writing.
The human mind is a funny thing; it likes to play tricks on us.
For example, when we proofread and edit our own writing, we tend to read it as we think it should be, which means we misread our own typos and other spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes as well as problems with word choice and sentence structure, context, and overall readability.
If you have a friend or family member who has good grammar skills, maybe they can help you out by proofreading and editing your work before you send it out or publish it.
For special submissions and publications, hiring a professional proofreader or editor is the best way to make sure your writing is free of errors.
But for most of us, it’s not likely that anyone’s going to proofread and edit every single piece of writing that we create. That’s especially true for writers who put out a lot of material — like bloggers. Proofreading and editing services can get expensive, and friends and family probably don’t want to spend all their free time checking your work.
Do-It-Yourself Proofreading and Editing Tips
Sometimes the only option available is to do it yourself. Here are twenty-one proofreading and editing tips that you can put into practice for polishing your own writing:
- Proofread and edit every single piece of writing before it is seen by another set of eyes. No exceptions. Even if you hire a professional editor or proofreader, check your work first.
- Understand the difference between proofreading and editing. Edit first by making revisions to the content and language. Then proofread to check for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- Use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word when you edit. This feature saves your edits. You can then approve or reject those edits.
- Step away from a piece of writing before you proofread it. The longer the piece, the longer you should wait to proofread it. Let a novel sit for a few weeks. Let a blog post sit overnight.
- Before proofreading and editing, run spelling and grammar check. Then, run it again after you’re done polishing to check for any lingering typos. However, don’t count on software for spelling and grammar. Use it as a fail-safe.
- Read your work aloud. Pronounce each word slowly and clearly as you read and check for mistakes.
- Proofreading should never be a rush job. Do it s l o w l y.
- Don’t review your work once and then send it out into the world. I recommend editing until the piece reads smoothly and proofreading three times or more.
- At the very least, proofread until you don’t catch any more errors.
- Read the piece backward so you can see each word separately and out of context.
- Look up the spelling of proper names as well as scientific and technical terms that you’re not familiar with to make sure you’re spelling them correctly.
- Don’t make any assumptions. If you’re not sure about something, look it up so you can fix a mistake (if there is one) and learn the correct way.
- Don’t forget to proofread titles, headlines, and footnotes.
- Pay attention to the mistakes you’ve made in your writing. You’ll find that you tend to make the same ones repeatedly. Keep track of these and work on avoiding them during the initial writing process in the future.
- Choose one of the many style guides and stick with it. This will make your work more consistent, and you’ll have a great resource to use when you have questions about style and formatting.
- Start building a collection of grammar books and writing resources so when you do run into questions (and you will), you have access to reliable and credible answers.
- If you intentionally let grammatical mistakes slip through, do so by choice and make sure you have a good reason. It’s okay to break the rules if you know why you’re breaking them.
- Pay attention to formatting. Use the same formatting on all paragraphs and headings for a professional level of consistency. Learn how to use these features in your word processing software (in MS Word, this feature is called Styles).
- Proofread when you’re fresh and wide awake. Proofreading doesn’t go over well when you’re tired or distracted.
- Proofreading and editing can be tedious, so break up your revision sessions by doing other tasks that help you clear your mind: exercise, play with the pets or kids, go for a short walk, or listen to some music. Try to avoid reading or writing during these breaks.
- Make it your business to develop good grammar skills. Read up on grammar or subscribe to a blog that publishes grammar posts (like this one) to stay up to date on proper grammar.
Some people love the proofreading and editing process. Others despise it. If you’re into grammar, the mechanics of writing, and polishing your work, then proofreading and editing will be easier and more enjoyable for you. If not, just look at it as part of your job — something that goes along with being a writer.
And once you’re done proofreading and editing, make sure you get back to your writing.
Got any proofreading and editing tips to share? Leave a comment!
Language is a funny thing, and translations are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we might want them to be.
Years ago, when I was learning Spanish (I never did master it), on an especially warm day, I wanted to say, “I’m hot,” which is a standard expression in English. But when I said the phrase, “Yo soy caliente” to my Spanish-speaking cousin, he laughed and warned me not to go around using that phrase. Apparently in Spanish, this expression has to do with lust, not the temperature.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: translation requires more than looking up words in a language dictionary.
Languages are filled with connotations and nuances. Technology has given us a host of tools that we can use to parse languages that we don’t know, but we can’t rely on these tools for proper translations because they are not capable of fully understanding the subtleties of language: especially colloquialisms, cliches, and other common expressions.
We can usually use translator tools to get the gist of some text that’s written in a foreign language, but as writers, we can also find ways to use these tools to hone our craft. Today we’ll use online translators to generate a poetry writing exercise.
Poetry Writing Exercise
The goal of this exercise is to use an online translator as a tool to get your raw material, a collection of words and phrases that you’ll use to build a new poem. For this exercise, you’ll need a poem written in a foreign language plus a professional translation of that poem in English.
Here are the steps:
- Find a poem that was written in a foreign language that you don’t speak, read, or understand. Make sure it’s a poem that has been professionally translated into English (or another language in which you’re fluent). You’ll need both the translation and native versions of the poem.
- Read the poem aloud in its native language. You don’t know this language, so don’t worry about comprehension or pronunciation. Just read it and see what it sound like. Does it have a rough, jagged feeling? Is it smooth and flowing?
- Paste the poem into an online translation tool and translate it into English (or another language in which you’re fluent). Do not use a published translation of the work. The key to this exercise is to take the original poem in its native language, and run it through an electronic translator.
- Read the translated copy. Does it make sense? Do any words or phrases feel odd or out of place?
- Now pull out words and phrases that interest you. Copy and paste them into a new document (or write them as a list in your notebook).
- Use the words and phrases you’ve harvested to write a new poem of your own. For an added twist, try to incorporate new words and phrases that are reminiscent of the native language of the poem. For example, if you’re using a poem written in Hawaiian, consider setting your poem on one of the Hawaiian islands.
- Now get the professional translation of the poem and read it. How similar is it to the online translation? How similar is it to the poem you wrote?
A good way to find poems for this exercise is to search for famous poets from other countries or pick up a book of poems that are published in both their native languages and English translations.
Lost in Translation
I studied French for four years in junior high and high school plus two semesters in college. I never did become fluent because I was unable to experience immersion. But what surprised me the most about learning French was how much it taught me about my native language, English. We writers can learn a lot about writing by studying various languages.
Are you bilingual? Have you ever studied or mastered a foreign language? How has your understanding of language influenced your poetry? Do you have any poetry writing exercises to share? Leave a comment!
We usually understand a journal to be a place for writing about ourselves, but journals can be used for plenty of other purposes, many of which are especially useful to writers.
I’ve had my share of adventures in journal writing. As a teen, I kept a diary. Later, I had a poetry journal. I tried dream journaling, art journaling, and sometimes I keep a gratitude journal.
I believe journal writing is a huge boon to writers, especially when we’re not working on a specific project or when we’re looking for our next big project.
Today, I’d like to share a few of my favorite journal writing tools and resources.
A Place to Create
It’s been said a million times: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I would add that if you want to be creative, you have to create. Sitting around and waiting for a big, blockbuster idea won’t do you any good. You’ve got to practice. And keeping a journal is a great way to practice writing and foster creativity every single day.
What I love best about my journal is that there are no rules. It’s my own little creative space. I use it for freewriting, sketching, and writing down my thoughts. I don’t write in my journal every day, but before I started blogging and writing professionally, I was pretty diligent about using my journal for routine writing practice.
I’ve been poking around the web in search of some of the best tools and resources for journaling with an emphasis on creativity and writing. Here’s what I found:
Moleskines are the most popular notebooks for writers and artists. They come in various sizes ranging from pocket-sized to 8 x 10 (inches) and with various paper, including blank or lined pages, thick paper, or regular note paper. There’s a pocket in the back, a placeholder ribbon, and a strap that keeps the journal closed. Moleskines were popular with Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway, so they’ve got solid endorsement. I’ve had one for several years but only recently started using it and discovered that I absolutely love it.
The Artist’s Way
This classic book for writers and artists is well known for giving us “morning pages.” It has inspired writers and artists to create on a daily basis. The Artist’s Way has become a staple among all kinds of creatives from filmmakers to crafters. You’re sure to find something to help you establish a writing routine, improve your writing skills, or overcome writer’s block in this book, which includes a twelve-week program packed with activities and exercises that you can do.
Paper Mate Profile Pens
I’ve never been into fancy, expensive pens. Frankly, I go through far too many pens to spend a lot of money on them, and we all know how easily pens get lost. I also like to have a range of colors at my disposal. I’ll use a color that matches my mood, or I’ll use colors to create outlines and mind maps that are color coded and easy to navigate. These Paper Mate Profile Pens are the best! They write smoothly, have a nice grip, and are affordable. Plus, you can buy them singly or in a package of assorted colors. They’re also great for doodling and sketching in the margins!
Day One Journal App
One of the great things about technology for writers is that it provides a simple way to create, organize, and store your work. Gone are the days when we filled notebooks with novels and then transcribed them on typewriters. New technology is just as useful for journaling and keeping notes. Day One is a journal app available for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It’s one of the most popular journal apps with features that include password lock, calendar view, photos, and inspirational messages, plus it syncs with iCloud and Dropbox.
Wreck This Journal
Wreck This Journal unleashes your inner artist and allows you to be creative without fear of failure because the journal is designed to be wrecked. It’s a great way to get your creativity out of the box. As you work your way through the journal, you’ll cut, tear, and thrash the book. You start letting go of constraints and inhibitions, allowing yourself to make mistakes and create poorly crafted prose, giving your creativity the courage it needs to take risks.
A Few More Goodies
- I love this: 1000 Journals traveled from hand to hand throughout the world.
- Here at Writing Forward, we’ve talked a lot about writing groups, but did you know there are also journal groups? (I didn’t!)
- Before Moleskine, this was my favorite journal: The Watson-Guptill Sketchbook. I’ve been using these for well over a decade and they house my most precious journal writing material (freewrites, poems, reflective journals, drawings). They come in various sizes and colors, and they feature hard covers and blank, unlined pages.
- Last but not least, this lovely little video explains the art of journaling and the freedom that a journal brings:
People use journals for a variety of purposes: for self-improvement, personal reflection, heritage preservation, creativity, tracking professional progress, and writing practice. Do you keep a journal or use a notebook? How has journal writing helped you? Got any journaling tips or resources to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep journaling!
Descriptive writing is the art of painting a picture with words.
In fiction, we describe settings and characters. In poetry, we describe scenes, experiences, and emotions. In creative nonfiction, we describe reality.
Classic literature was dense with description whereas modern literature usually keeps description to a minimum.
Compare the elaborate descriptions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with the descriptions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Both series relied on description to help the readers visualize an imagined, fantastical world, but Rowling did not use her precious writing space to describe standard settings whereas Tolkien frequently paused all action and spent pages describing a single landscape.
This isn’t unique to Tolkien and Rowling; if you compare most literature from the beginning of of the 20th century and earlier to today’s work, you’ll see that we just don’t dedicate much time and space to description anymore.
I think this radical change in how we approach description is directly tied to the wide availability of film, television, and photography. Let’s say you were living in the 19th century, writing a story about a tropical island for an audience of northern, urban readers. You would be fairly certain that most of your readers had never seen such an island and had no idea what it looked like. To give your audience a full sense of your story’s setting, you’d need pages of detail describing the lush jungle, sandy beaches, and warm waters.
Nowadays, we all know what a tropical island looks like, thanks to the wide availability of media. Even if you’ve never been to such an island, surely you’ve seen one on TV.
Descriptive Writing in the 21st Century
This might explain why few books on the craft of writing address descriptive writing. The focus is usually on other elements, like character, plot, theme, and structure. While modern readers don’t require lengthy descriptions, descriptive writing is an essential skill, even in the 21st century.
For contemporary writers, the trick is to make the description as precise and detailed as possible while keeping it to a minimum. Most readers want characters and action with just enough description so that they can imagine the story as it’s unfolding.
Descriptive writing is especially important for speculative fiction writers and poets. If you’ve created a fantasy world, then you’ll need to deftly describe it to readers. Lewis Carroll not only described Wonderland; he also described the fantastical creatures that inhabited it. In poetry, the challenge is to describe things in a way that is visceral.
Simple descriptions are surprisingly easy to execute. All you have to do is look at something (or imagine it) and write what you see. But well crafted descriptions require writers to pay diligence to word choice, to describe only those elements that are most important, and to use engaging language to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
10 Descriptive Writing Ideas
Here are some descriptive writing ideas that will inspire you while providing opportunities to practice writing description. If you don’t have much experience with descriptive writing, you may find that your first few attempts are flat and boring. If you can’t keep readers engaged, they will wander off. Work at crafting descriptions that are compelling and mesmerizing.
- Go to one of your favorite spots and write a description of the setting: it could be your bedroom, favorite coffee shop, or a local park. Leave people, dialogue, and action out of it. Just focus on explaining what the space looks like.
- Who is your favorite character from the movies? Describe the character from head to toe. Show the reader not only what the character looks like but also how the character acts. Do this without including action or dialogue. Remember: description only!
- Thirty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet. Now we have cell phones that can access the Internet. Think of a device or gadget that we’ll have thirty years from now and describe it.
- Since modern fiction is light on description, many young and new writers often fail to include descriptions, even when the reader needs them. Go through one of your writing projects and check to see that elements readers may not be familiar with are adequately described.
- Sometimes in a narrative, a little description provides respite from all the action and dialogue. Make a list of things from a story you’re working on (gadgets, characters, settings, etc.) and for each one, write a short description of no more than a hundred words.
- As mentioned, Tolkien often spent pages describing a single landscape. Choose one of your favorite pieces of classic literature, find a long passage of description, and rewrite it. Try to cut the descriptive word count in half.
- When you read a book, use a highlighter to mark sentences and paragraphs that contain description. Don’t highlight every adjective and adverb. Look for longer passages that are dedicated to description.
- Write a description for a child. Choose something reasonably difficult, like the solar system. How do you describe it in such a way that a child understands how he or she fits into it?
- Most writers dream of someday writing a book. Describe your book cover.
- Write a one-page description of yourself.
If you have any descriptive writing ideas to add to this list, feel free to share them in the comments.