ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): D is for Description

Posted by on Sep 19, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

10565732_10202711234837124_681547551_nWhat does “description” mean for writers?

Description can be thought of as added flavor to an otherwise bland piece. In the greater story, description helps to further characterization, setting, and mood. The use of description whether in its broadest and most verbose sense or in its most controlled, deliberate, and sparse application has the same goal–to create a seamless reading experience for the audience–a world in which your reader can immerse themselves.

So, how do we utilize description in an effective and deliberate manner? We start by taking simplistic sentences in our stories, poems, novels, and essays and fleshing them out. We push our words by varying our language–we provide color, texture.

We breathe air into our characters–describe the color of their hair, the scent of their perfume, the texture of their silk dress–the way it feels against her legs. When describing a scene at a country fair it’s better to describe the feel of sneakers slipping into muddy ground, the miasma of barnyard and fried food scent, the squeal of rusty carnival equipment.

When we experience life, we use all five of our senses–we ruffle hair, we savor dark roast coffee, we lose ourselves in the crescendo of classical orchestras, and we enjoy the colorful complexities of sunsets.

The goal of storytelling should always be to emulate experience. We engage our readers by calling upon their senses and creating both empathy and sympathy through our prose.

Think of sentences as initial brushstrokes in an elaborate painting. We commit our initial observations to paper: a boy is playing with a ball. These lines are spidery, thin, they convey the bare boned idea of the observation. We begin to pull at language to create life. A boy in a paisley shirt pushes the red, rubber ball across the grass. We can add and omit as much detail as needed in creating scene and character.

We must ride the balance of wordiness and minimalism–straying away from cop-out descriptive habits. Adverbs like “cheerfully,” “sadly,” and “excitedly” can all be thrown away in exchange for more precise and exact language. Adverbs can only lessen the immersive experience for your reader and cause them to sketch a loose picture, taking them out of the world of your story.

Instead, describe how the character exuded cheerfulness–did his eyes crinkle? Did you notice a slight gap in his toothy smile? What made this action, this emotion, this experience different?

Descriptive writing is a muscle we all must learn to flex and exercise so we can become more effective storytellers. We must become experts in examining what messages and experiences we would like our readers to have. In a more action-packed passage, large, flowery descriptions may distract the reader from the narrative. However, in more slower paced, expository passages, more description can lead the reader into a greater understanding of the story’s universe.

Experiment! Write as little or as much as you initially want to convey–build the scaffolding and support structure of your story. After you’ve got these bare sentences constructed, breathe. Allow yourself a day or so to ponder your passages without a ballpoint pen or a blinking cursor. When you return, begin to sketch in the details–color your skies, give your characters capillaries, flesh, nervous systems! Pull at language like cotton candy–consult thesauruses, learn better words! Never forget about the seamlessness you want your reader to experience–that singular moment where a person finishes your novel, essay, or poem, exhales, and says, “Wow.” ABC’s of Writing


Robin Collins is a peculiar poet preoccupied with the mundane and grotesque. She is currently working on her full-length book, Crumpled Napkins in Volvos. She recieved her MFA from Fairfield University and currently resides in Newtown, CT.

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