Descriptive Writing

I’m rechristening this blog as The Writing Well (not to be confused with an assortment of workshops, writers group, and other writer resources that use that name) and I plan to use it to think more deeply about the writing process, from source to result, in ways that will be useful to you, dear reader. For the inaugural post (trumpets, please!) I offer an exercise I shared at a recent Writers on the Avenue meeting in which we discussed—and practiced—ways to make our writing more descriptive. These are the techniques I recalled from my own excellent teachers; I’ll be interested in any additions you might like to make via comments or emailing me.

How do you write lines and sentences that have texture, movement, and the power to pull readers in? How do you create writing that makes readers see, feel, hear, remember? How do you bring readers into your world and keep them there? How do you give them an experience that leaves an impression long after readers have put down your story, poem, or book?


Engage the 5 Senses: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch, Smell

Bring your reader where you are by describing everything through the senses. You don’t need to say “I saw,” “she heard,” “they smelled.” Describe the sensation.


The sun made the sky a Picasso painting, a full palette of primary colors.

The clanging alarm bell split her dream, jolting her out of bed.

She handed me a slice of peach pie, tart and spongy, with a tang of cinnamon ice cream melting beside.

Its fur tickled my hand.

She fell into my arms reeking of car exhaust, lighter fluid, and smoke.


Use Active Voice

Active voice: I sang, she threw, he vaulted, they escaped.

Passive: The song was sung; the ball was thrown; the book was read. Use it only when you must.

Don’t use progressive or perfect forms when you can be simple and direct.

“I have seen that movie a dozen times.”  vs.  “Saw that. Twelve times.”

“The party is being held next Saturday.” vs. “The party starts on Saturday, doll.”

“They were sleeping all crowded in the bed.” vs. “They slept piled on the bed like cats.”

Keep your verbs active to keep your lines active. Don’t “begin” action, i.e. “She began to get out of the car. He began to pay the cab driver. I began to enter the building.” Just go.


Eliminate Vague Modifiers

A little. Kind of. A sort of. Somewhat like. A bit. A great deal. Maybe. Cut. Cut. Cut.


Select Precise Adjectives and Use Adverbs Sparingly

It felt wonderful. The view was magnificent. His speech was grandiose. These are vague adjectives that tell us nothing. Likewise, do not rely on adverbs: tellingly, coyly, meaningfully, compellingly. Stephen King hates adverbs and you should, too. Instead:


Choose Concrete Nouns, Vivid Verbs, and Specific Detail


He began to enter the room apprehensively.

He inched into the dining room, knife in hand, alert eyes searching beneath the shadowed chairs.


The view was magnificent.

The mountains scored the sky like angry teeth, shoulders rippling with dense pines. Granite boulders older than God squatted like boils on the arms of giants.


He ran as fast as he could down the alley.

He sprinted around the dumpsters and piles of debris, hurdling a stack of treated lumber bristling with long, lethal nails.


The rain felt wonderful.

The cool damp swept my fevered skin like a mother’s soothing palm.


Eliminate Filters

“I thought” “I heard” “I looked” “I saw” “I remembered.” Make the description do the work.


Use Imagery

Not tired clichés, of course, or worn-out turns of phrase. Go back to the five senses. Think like a poet. What’s the sensation you want your reader to feel? Use analogy, metaphor, detail.

Look at this example from Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours:

“The attic, an outpost in the castle, the place to which children had traditionally been banished until by age or attribute they were deemed worthy of adult regard, a room of low ceilings and feisty mice, skull-freezing winters and simmering summers, the outlet through which all chimneys passed on their way to freedom, suddenly seemed to hum.”

Or this from my own short story “Ask”:

“The empty hallways felt like her barn in the early mornings, when she opened the door and the sun drifted down and sparkles of hay swirled through the air like pixie dust. Sometimes in winter, up in the mountains where they lived, the air was so clear and crisp she felt it would break off in her mouth. She loved the way she could look into the valley and not know where the lake ended and the sky began, which were the cloud banks and which were the mountains. She wanted so much to bring a child into all that untouched, staggering beauty. To show him a world as fresh as if it had just then dropped from the fingers of God.”


Try this exercise to put your descriptive powers to work.

  • Set a timer and write for 6 minutes about a place that holds powerful memories for you. Say what it makes you feel. Pile on the adjectives if you need to. Try to convey what this place brings out in you.
  • Turn the page and reset the time. Now, describe that place using only the 5 senses and appropriate imagery. Don’t discuss any memories or feelings. No filters: “I felt,” or “I remember,” or “I seem to recall.” Stay in a moment and use only the 5 senses. Advanced writers: Use one “like,” one “as,” and one metaphor.

Read this exercise aloud to a willing subject. Ask them to identify the feelings this place inspires in you. If you chose the right words and images, they’ll feel what you felt. And that’s the point.

Now go write.

Descriptive Writing

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