What is Descriptive Writing?
Writing description is a necessary skill for most writers. Whether we’re writing an essay or a story, we usually reach a point where we need to describe something by explaining what it looks like or how it works.
But many writers find description challenging to write, and many readers find it boring to read. Before the advent of photographs and film, description was essential. A person in the American Midwest who had never seen a tropical island would need a detailed description in order to visualize it. Nowadays, thanks to technology and modern media, most of us know what a tropical island looks like — no description required.
However, I think it’s safe to say that technology and media has also spoiled us. We’ve become increasingly visual, which means it’s getting harder to use words to describe a scene, especially if it only exists in our imaginations. Although some writers are naturally gifted at writing description, it’s a struggle for many of us.
Descriptive Writing: What Does it Mean?
The term descriptive writing can mean a few different things:
- Descriptive Essay: A descriptive essay is pure description and designed to build skills in descriptive writing. It can describe a person, place, event, object, or anything else. It focuses on using words to establish visuals.
- Description as part of a larger work: This is the most common kind of descriptive writing. It is usually a sentence or paragraph (sometimes multiple paragraphs) that provide description, usually to help the reader visualize what’s happening. It’s most commonly used to describe a setting or a character. An example would be a section of text within a novel that establishes the setting by describing a room or a passage that introduces a character with a physical description.
- Writing that is descriptive (or vivid) — an author’s style: Some authors can weave description throughout the prose, interspersing it through the dialogue and action. It’s a style of writing that imparts description without using large blocks of text that are explicitly focused on description.
Depending on what you write, you’ve probably experimented with one of more of these types of descriptive writing.
Tips for Writing Description
I’ve encountered writers whose descriptions are so smooth and seamless that I easily visualize what’s happening without even noticing that I’m reading description. Some authors craft descriptions that are so lovely, I do notice — but in a good way. Some of them are so compelling that I pause to read them again.
On the other hand, poorly crafted descriptions can really impede a reader’s experience. Description doesn’t work if it’s unclear, verbose, or bland. Most readers prefer action and dialogue to lengthy descriptions, so while a paragraph here and there can certainly help readers better visualize what’s happening, pages and pages of description can increase the risk that they’ll set your work aside and never pick it up again. There are exceptions to every rule, so the real trick is to know when lengthy descriptions are warranted and when they’re just boring.
Here are some general tips for descriptive writing:
- Use distinct descriptions that stand out and are memorable. For example, don’t write that a character is five foot two with brown hair and blue eyes. Give the reader something to remember. Say the character is short with mousy hair and sky-blue eyes.
- Make description active: Consider the following description of a room: There was a bookshelf in the corner. A desk sat under the window. The walls were beige, and the floor was tiled. That’s boring. Try something like this: A massive oak desk sat below a large picture window and beside a shelf overflowing with books. Hardcovers, paperbacks, and binders were piled on the dingy tiled floor in messy stacks.
- Weave description through the narrative: This isn’t always possible. Sometimes a character enters a room and looks around, so the narrative needs to pause to describe what the character sees. Other times, description can be threaded through the narrative. For example, instead of pausing to describe a character, engage that character in dialogue with another character. Use the characters’ thoughts and the dialogue tags to reveal description: He stared at her flowing, auburn curls, which reminded him of his mother’s hair. “Where were you?” he asked, shifting his green eyes across the restaurant to where a customer was hassling one of the servers.
Does descriptive writing come easily to you, or do you struggle with it? Do you put much thought into how you write description? What types of descriptive writing have you tackled — descriptive essays, blocks of description within larger texts, or descriptions woven throughout a narrative? Share your tips for descriptive writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!