Welcome to part 3 of “How to Improve Your Writing”! Now that we’ve discussed tone and narration, it’s time to focus on how we actually use those elements to craft descriptions that bring our stories to life.
Keep in mind that this advice is targeting toward creative writing since that’s what I love the most, but in the future, I could also do a mini-series that explores ways to improve your content writing.
Now, let’s dive in. Descriptive writing is something that a lot of writers struggle with. I’ve been writing since I was 16 and still find myself stuck at times seven years later. What’s important to note is that while every author develops their own descriptive style, every story will require its own special type of description.
This means that the type of description you use in your coming-of-age YA novel won’t at all be the same to the sci-fi you come up with years later. Every person in the world sees things differently. Our eyes are only the receptors to the external world.
What we really see is determined by our own perception; our mood, memories and even our fears all impact how we take in our environment.
So first and foremost, have an idea of who your characters are before you start writing. This doesn’t mean things won’t change. It also doesn’t mean you must know every single facet of their lives and personalities before you start to write. What it does mean, however, is that you need to have a general idea of who your narrator is. Need some help deciding what makes a good narrator? Or if your narrator should even be a good one at all? Check out part 2 of How to Improve Your Writing that talks all about narration.
Descriptive Writing Vocabulary
The greatest gift a writer to give to him or herself is to actively expand their vocabulary. Nothing is more important than the words we use and when it comes to writing descriptively, even choosing one synonym over another can make or break the atmosphere. Don’t fret, though. With some dedicated time every week, you can grow your vocabulary to astounding new heights. This vernacular will allow you to adapt your writing to a variety of different mediums, characters and stories.
You can start to build up your vocabulary by keeping a notebook beside you whenever you read. I always stumble across new words reading books but never remember to actually look them up. If I do, I forget them shortly after. Jotting them down in the notebook along with their definitions will result in a personal writing dictionary. Once you build it up enough, you can organize it into categories like “emotions”, “scenery” and “physical descriptions” to facilitate the writing process.
Another great way to improve your vocabulary is to subscribe to Miriam Webster’s Word of the Day. Each word is accompanied by an explanation of its origin and they range from pretty common and useful words to ones that you may never actually wind up using but will feel incredibly smart for knowing nonetheless. Discovering the unique words through these emails also gets me excited to write because I start thinking of ways I can incorporate the new words into my work. My favorite new word is “tocsin”.
If you’re more of a visual learner, then check out Haggard Hawks on YouTube. Their channel is entirely dedicated to the etymology of words. You’ll feel like a complete word nerd watching and feel instantly smarter afterward. The narrators also have excellent British accents which makes every new word they introduce you to that much better. To give you an idea of what their channel offers, here’s their latest video “10 Fossil Words” (Hint: It’s not about dinosaurs).
Last but not least, there’s “Vocabulary for Dummies”. I’m a long-time endorser of the For Dummies series. I’ve loved them ever since I got their Algebra I book back in high school. This vocabulary book will teach you all sorts of nifty wordinology (I tried to combine “terminology” and “word” to create something cool there. It didn’t work). You’ll learn about conjunctions, prepositions, the meaning of the most common prefixes, suffixes and of course, a whole bunch of awesome new words just screaming to be included in your WIP. You can buy the book on Amazon and in the meantime, check out the vocabulary cheat sheet on the For Dummies site here.
Tips and Tricks
Since every project will require a different descriptive style, the best way to ensure you’ll always hit the nail on the head is to develop some universal descriptive writing habits. These habits are fundamental to writing and will ensure that your work is always consistent, fluid and transparent. The goal of descriptive writing isn’t to mask your style with the same words everyone else uses but to instead learn how to describe things in a manner that lets your original writing style always shine through.
Show Don’t Tell
This is by far the most preached piece of writing advice, and for good reason. Showing your readers the picture in your head helps establish things that would otherwise remain obscure. Showing description doesn’t just paint a physical picture, but also reveal your characters’ key emotions. Take a look at the following example:
Okay. So she cried. Why? Was she happy? Sad? Was she sobbing alone in her room? Was she in hysterics? Or did she shed only shed a few tears? The word “cried” encompasses a variety of different styles. Using descriptive writing, we can reveal how our character cried and, more importantly, reveal why in a manner that’s either explicit or creates a sense of mystery.
“‘Sorry, ma’am. That was the last flight,’ the man at the ticket booth said, casting her a sympathetic smile. She mumbled a thank-you and headed for the exit. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough, yet with each step, her feet felt heavier and heavier. As she approached the automatic glass doors that fed luggage-toting travelers in and out of the airport, the tears that had welled in her eyes began to fall.”
“After the call ended, she tossed her phone onto the bed and squealed with delight, much to the startlement of the slumbering cat curled up on the comforter. Normally she would have felt bad about disturbing his nap, but today she couldn’t think of anything but the news she’d just received. In the midst of her happy dance, she caught her eyes in the full-length mirror on the back of her door and smiled. The girl staring back was flushed and breathless, hair clinging to the tears that coated her cheeks. An unexpected sob broke from her throat and she clamped her hand over her mouth. A giggle followed. She started to laugh and cry all at once until she was nothing more than a giggling, tearful mess on the floor.”
In both of these examples, a girl is crying. However, through description, we experienced two completely opposite emotions. The first was disappointed and hopeless, while the second was gleeful and lighthearted. Your description has the power to transform your entire character’s life in just a few short sentences.
Use Smart Adverbs
There’s nothing wrong with an adverb here or there. I never understood why writers so vehemently opposed them. However, I only support them when they actually serve a purpose and modify something in a way a different verb wouldn’t have been able to. For example, “quietly.” This is an adverb that I use often. Someone who says something quietly isn’t jus talking, but they aren’t whispering either. However, “slowly” walking somewhere when you can saunter or trudge is a completely different story. Doing this will just make you come off as an amateur or, worse, lazy.
Usually, people use adverbs because they don’t have the stronger verbs they need to accurately describe the scenes unfolding in their head. This is why building up your vocabulary and using tools like thesaurus.com and Microsoft Word’s synonym suggestions is crucial to developing strong, engaging descriptions.
Descriptive Writing Exercises
As usual, we’ll conclude this post with some writing prompts. Description is all about the specific story and emotions you want to convey, so these exercises will focus on flexing your creative muscles and exploring different avenues. Prompt number one is super easy. Describe your bedroom. You’re probably sitting in it right now. Let your mind wander as you talk about it. Where did the furniture come from? What’s your favorite thing about the room? Your least? What memories does it conjure up?
Now describe your room again, only this time, do it through the eyes of a stranger who has just woken up there. They don’t know you or your family and have zero recollection of the past 24 hours. The furniture starts to take on a different appearance, doesn’t it? You probably don’t notice the books on the bookshelf or tickets linked along the windowsill. Now you’ll focus on other things like the door and whether or not its locked, how many windows are in the room and what the bed or floor they’re on looks and feels like.
For prompt number two, you’re going to the hospital. Everyone’s favorite place, right? Using the same narrator for both, imagine you’re in the waiting room of the ER for the following two scenarios.
- A car accident involving a friend.
- The birth of a new family member.
Focus on the emotions tied to each of those. In the first, your narrator is probably going to be scared and anxious. They may have been involved in the accident themselves and whisked their friend through the ER doors, or maybe they just got the call and now they’re left waiting to find out the extent of their friend’s injuries. In the second, your narrator might still be anxious but it’s a different type of anxiety. It’s impatient, it’s excited. Focus on these emotions as you explore the hospital waiting room in your mind. In both cases, don’t use any actual words relating to emotions. Don’t say anyone is happy or sad or scared. Use their body language and perception of the room to show your readers exactly how they’re feeling.
Feel free to share your responses in the comments! I’d love to read them. If you have any questions, fire away! I’ll always reply ASAP. You can also tweet me directly @wynnagade. Happy writing!