There are two kinds of writers; writers who keep things simple and descriptive writers. The former likes to move the plot along and let the reader’s imagination do the work, while the latter likes to create an immersive story and paint a more defined picture of the scene.
Today’s piece is for the descriptive as I will be giving you 15 tips on improving your descriptive writing. Let’s get into it!
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Understanding Descriptive Writing
Some common thoughts about descriptive writing paint a negative picture of the writing style.
Firstly, it is a common belief that descriptive writing is simply adding a lot of unnecessary information. The point of descriptive writing is to add to the story, not distract from the critical information already provided. Of course, there are a lot of writers who add such fluff to their story, but it should be confused with descriptive writing.
Second, descriptive writing will slow down the pacing. This can be good and bad, but we will talk about that more in a later tip.
The tips that I will be talking about will highlight some cons, but also the pros of the writing style. In addition, if you are interested in using this writing style, these tips will help ensure that you are effective. The last thing you want to do is lean more into the cons of the writing style.
With that said, let’s get into the first tip!
1. Use More Dynamic Words
One of the major problems descriptive writing has is that it can bore the reader. Sometimes the description just isn’t interesting enough to get the reader’s attention. This can lead to skimming through until they get to a more exciting part.
The key is in that action.
The reader is looking for an interesting word in the story. It can be something related to the plot, or it can just be a dynamic word that gets their attention. These dynamic words are what will keep your descriptive writing interesting. Use them whenever possible, as they will keep your reader invested and it will keep your descriptive writing consistently enjoyable.
You don’t want to use mundane words and descriptions when describing something boring, but necessary. It will just take away from that interesting point.
2. Use the Senses
If you want to be descriptive, but aren’t sure what to talk about in a scene to paint a better picture, then look to the sense. You are trying to immerse the reader and you need to do that with more than just descriptions of the visual elements in the story. You want to also talk about the experiences of the other senses.
For example, you can describe your detective coming across a grizzly crime scene. Visually, your detective and reader will be disgusted, but to add to the atmosphere and impact of this shocking sight, you can talk about the smells, the texture (a character doesn’t need to touch anything) and the sounds in the vicinity.
If you do this, you will build a better atmosphere than one that just focuses on the visual aspect of the scene. You don’t need to do too much to capture every sense, even a sentence each will do the trick. If you do want to keep the description minimal, you can accomplish this in a paragraph or two; you don’t need an entire page.
Note, you don’t need to do this every time you introduce something new. However, it is recommended you do so when you feel it will add to the scene or subject matter.
3. Use Character Emotions
Another element in the story to consider is the emotions of the characters. Depending on the scene, a character can go through a range of emotions that emphasize the atmosphere of the scene.
You can have a darker scene bring up a past trauma or a lighter scene evoke a positive memory. A character can convey these emotions through their expressions and their actions, but if you do write your character’s thoughts, you can also address that. A character might have a short inner monologue talking about the emotions or just a simple statement that captures the scene well.
The senses do address the emotional impact in some way, but the emotions themselves strictly pertain to the character’s personality and their past. Thus, you can have a variety of reactions and emotions to make a scene realistic and compelling.
As always, don’t overdo it, but if you feel that it will help the scene, don’t shy away from the opportunity.
4. Avoid Crutch Words
Every writer has crutch words they cling to despite all efforts to do away with them. Crutch words are words such as ‘like’, ‘well’, ‘literally’, ‘obviously’ etc.
When it comes to me, I extend this list with redundant phrases like ‘personally’ and ‘quite’ and ‘when it comes to me me’.
Crutch words tend to appear more often in a writer’s writing, which isn’t great when the writer is being descriptive. That leads to plenty of opportunities for the words they use habitually to appear. It can lead to bothersome repetition that comes off as boring or annoying to most readers.
I have struggled to ditch my crutch words for years. I found the best method for avoiding them is simply understanding what crutch words I use and keeping an eye out for them. If I can omit them, I will. Only when I feel it is fine to use them do I leave them alone, but when I am writing descriptively I will try my best to cut them from the writing.
5. Challenge Your Imagination
Being descriptive means being more creative with how you describe something. There is an inherent need to avoid repetition when describing subjects, which is why when two or more subjects share a similar trait, a writer needs to focus on a different trait, or describe the subject differently.
There is also another desire to keep the descriptions investing, which means avoiding descriptions that sound too simple, or too boring.
Sometimes there is enough challenge in constructing the story and the characters, which is one of the benefits of a simpler writing style. While it may seem like descriptive writing requires more effort, it also offers a greater reward.
A story with creative descriptions that maintain interest and add to the story will always win out over the simplicity of basic description in the eyes of the readers. Simple descriptions only beat the more descriptive writing if the descriptive writing is done poorly.
Don’t be lazy with your descriptions if you are writing descriptively; always look for new and interesting ways to describe something. Just don’t try to be too unique, people might think you are drunk.
6. Use Backstories
There is more to being descriptive than lengthy sentences that define a subject matter. Descriptive writing means also including additional elements to add to the story or the characters.
It means a more in-depth, well-fleshed out story, not just describing the way a character looks for pages (don’t do this).
A great way to add depth to any element in your story without spewing so many words onto the page describing its looks is to describe its past. Tell the story behind a place or a person through backstory, talking about the significance of the features rather than just describing the features with lengthy paragraphs.
Depending on your story, you might have more backstory surrounding places than you do people, which will create a more immersive world. Backstories about characters just underline their traits and goals, creating more interest, but backstories around places add depth to the whole world.
7. Take Note of the Scene and Pacing
Another big mistake descriptive writers make is that they think they should be descriptive when describing everything. However, that will only cause problems when it comes to the impact of the scene.
The best fight scenes are made simple and gritty for a reason. It adds to the realism and the impact of the scene, but most importantly, it fits the pacing of such a scene. A descriptive fight will come off as boring and a lot less impactful. There is simply too much space in-between the start and end, too much space between each action.
The same advice applies to any other high pace scene.
Descriptive writing, as I said at the start of this article, will slow the pacing down. That is not a bad thing in the relaxed scenes, but in the high pace scenes it will bring down the story. Before getting into vibrant descriptions, take note of the actions and emotions.
8. Avoid Fluff, Be Interesting
It’s a simple tip, but an important one.
Fluff is what bores the reader, it is off-topic and used as a way to bump up the word count in a novel. You will usually find fluff in books that are barely the length of a novel, because the idea or the writer wasn’t good enough to easily reach the word goal. The less common type of fluff appears in lengthy novels, not for the sake of the word count, but because the writer tends to get off the topic.
I feel that most writers reading this piece or watching my video understand this tactic already, but I also want you to pay close attention to your writing and how you feel about it. If you are writing a segment of your story and you feel it is a little slow or uninteresting, it might be that and more so for the reader.
It then comes down to you as a descriptive writer to convey the information better or resort to telling that part of the story in a more simple fashion, rather than a descriptive one.
9. Don’t List Physical Characteristics
Listing characteristics is a great way to make the reader quickly forget some facts about your character’s looks. A writer should never list every physical characteristic when they introduce a character. Instead, a writer should describe a characteristic when it’s relevant.
When you introduce a character, describe the most obvious characteristics, but don’t get carried away. The most obvious would be the clothing, the build and hair colour. Secondary characteristics can be addressed later in your novel and when they are relevant to the moment.
A writer using a straightforward writing style will only mention a characteristic when that characteristic is needed or affected by the story, and that description will also be simple. A descriptive writer should do the same, but when given the opportunity to describe it, be more creative and in-depth with its description.
If done right, that feature will stick with the reader, so you don’t have to go into detail regarding that feature later on. Whereas a writer who simply describes something will need to mention that description one or two more times for that information to be cemented in the reader’s mind.
10. If It’s Not Interesting/Funny, Cut It Out
We have talked about cutting out the unnecessary information, but you also need to talk about the descriptive writing that is simply written in the novel to be interesting or funny.
I am aware of an amusing style in writing where the writer gets carried away with providing information, either to talk about some interesting aspect of the story or simply to include comedy into the scene. Lengthy descriptions and run-on sentences with personality can be compelling and amusing.
However, that is writing that serves a purpose in the story. If you feel the comedy doesn’t work, or the fact isn’t interesting, it would be better to omit it entirely, as it will distract from your other writing. As a descriptive writer, you have to fight harder for a reader’s attention than simplistic writers. That means removing the weakest link.
11. Make Sure Every Description Matches the Tone
The words you use and the way you use them need to fit the feeling you are trying to create. I have practiced with my students the art of describing something negatively and positively and it comes down to the way you use your words, not just the words themselves.
For example, using positive words and descriptions for a positive scene is great, but a writer should also take note of the length of the sentence and its structure. In a positive scene, a longer sentence can help create a more relaxed feeling while shorter sentences create a more exciting feeling.
When a scene is nearing a big conclusion, be it the reveal of a big scary monster or the delivery of positive news, the simple structure will steadily lead up to this reveal while more complicated sentences can dilute the impact, which is not a bad thing in some cases.
Keep your descriptions in line with the tone. You will know whether it is right or wrong when you read through it.
12. Make It Easy to Read, Don’t Overcomplicate
Another trap descriptive writers fall into is the desire to write lengthy, complicated sentences.
We can all understand the need to be poetic with descriptions. It gives us the opportunity to test our skills with metaphors and to use more emotionally driven words to convey a feeling. Yet, in doing so, we tread closer to the line we should never cross. A line that decides if the reader needs to only read your sentence once or twice.
The two factors that make a sentence complex, in the sense of logic, are the complexity of the words and the length of the sentence.
It’s easy to get carried away with a sentence, I have done that several times throughout this article, but that doesn’t change the result; a greater chance of confusion. It’s easy to lose one’s way amongst lengthy sentences that address several aspects of a subject. As a descriptive writer, you will discuss different aspects of a subject and you don’t want your reader to be unhappy at the end of the description.
The solution is to properly manage your sentences. Look at the length, the words and how many metaphors and similes you use. You don’t need to use every type of figure of speech, or repeatedly use a single figure of speech. Keep it easy to read, don’t overcomplicate.
13. Compare Your Writing to Favourite Descriptive Author
Aiming to be a descriptive writer and not having a writer to compare yourself to isn’t a great idea. You have no idea what makes writing descriptive, what style of writing you enjoy and you have no way of measuring your improvement.
It’s easy enough to find what descriptive writing style you enjoyed. Browse your bookshelf or online library, copy examples of descriptive writing you enjoyed and keep them handy for comparing. It would be best if you keep a few pages rather than a small segment, as you need to also take note of how often that author is descriptive.
From there, you write, you learn and change with time. You will find your style, but your favourite descriptive author will be a handy guide to help you understand what works and what doesn’t when you are experimenting.
14. Get a Harsh, but Fair Second Opinion
I have always advised a second opinion regarding one’s writing. Usually, I recommend a second opinion as another person can tell you if a character feels bland, the plot is uninteresting or a segment lacks logic. These are important things to know when doing a rewrite, or at least before editing.
However, when it comes to writing style, I recommend getting a harsh second opinion. The writing style is a lot more specific and requires either a professional writer or an avid reader to spot the problems in descriptive writing.
These will be the people who give your writing a closer look and decide what is missing, or what there is too much of. It’s important to consider this much as a writer, especially if you are trying a new style or have little experience writing.
It’s also important to take that advice with a pinch of salt. If some advice feels right and you wish to take it into account when writing, do so. However, if you have your way of doing things and the advice goes against what you enjoy, then you can compromise or even disregard that advice.
It’s all about improving your style. It’s not about changing it into someone else’s preference. Their opinions can serve to help you find problems you have, but aren't aware of.
15. Take Your Time
The final tip should go without saying, but I am going to say it anyway. I am mentioning this tip because I know there are writers out there like myself. Writers whose minds work faster than their fingers, who can write a page in a moment, a chapter in a morning.
Yet, descriptive writing works against that pace of writing.
A talented and experienced writer can pull it off, but if you are new to the style or to writing in general, you will speed through your descriptions to follow the plot. You are naturally better with simple writing styles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write descriptively.
All that needs to change is the pace at which you write. I encourage every writer to push forward when they hit a block, but I do not encourage writers to push forward when they jeopardize their style. It’s one thing to struggle with plot points and difficult scenes, but it’s another if your style is inconsistent. That is a problem very difficult to fix in editing and will most likely lead to rewrites.
Take your time with descriptions and approach them calmly. If you are ever stuck, you can move on. Just don’t move on when you can write descriptively.
I struggled in the beginning to find my writing style. It became clear to me months later that a simple writing style was the way to go, but I always wanted to create the deep, vibrant worlds that I often read about in fantasy books.
Yet, bringing myself to sit down and establish the world through creative descriptions was always difficult. I knew that it required me to go against my instincts, so I typically stick with my simple writing style to keep the experience enjoyable. Whenever I want to be more descriptive, I use these tips and get a second opinion from my wife, who tells me whether a description works or not. While I can judge whether other writers are good or bad at descriptive writing, judging my own is entirely different.
That’s one if there is one tip I put above any other, it would be that you get a second opinion from someone else. Writers generally have a tough time reviewing their work, so if you can get another perspective, it will do your writing a world of good.
Otherwise, I hope all these tips prove useful! If you are a descriptive writer, what tips would you give other writers for approaching the style? Let me know in the comments below!
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!