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 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 modern world.
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 visceral way.
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 Practices
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’ll 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 details, even when the reader needs them. Go through one of your writing projects and make sure elements that 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 practices to add to this list, feel free to share them in the comments.