How to Enrich Your Descriptions

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, for children or adults, history textbooks or science fiction space operas, you know there’s a difference between correct writing and good writing. Correct writing has all the commas and prepositions in the right places; good writing has internal logic, pattern and coherence.

But what about great writing? Writing that soars off the page and straight into your imagination. Writing that engages the mind and elevates the spirit. Writing that not only educates and entertains, but inspires. Can great writing be taught? Can it be learned?

Well, we think it can be learned, or at least cultivated, by understanding the underlying rhythm and music of words, by exploring the power of figurative language, by learning and practicing creative writing techniques and—perhaps most important—by always looking at and interpreting the world around you with the heightened perceptions of a writer.

Isn’t description just one element of creative writing? Yes … and no. Description can and should be woven throughout your writing, a multicolored thread that binds the whole. So when we talk about creativity and expression, we’re really talking about the ways in which you can give your reader the details and images that will bring your writing to life.

Keen observation, then, is a natural first step to becoming a more creative writer. The next time you’re out and about, try using the many eyes of the writer to observe and study the world around you:

    •    The naked eye, which observes and examines every minute detail
    •    The eye of memory, imparting special significance to things remembered
    •    The third eye, digging beneath the surface to the underlying meaning
    •    The all-accepting eye, which sees the world objectively, without prejudice or sentiment
    •    The gliding eye, capturing the essence of images in motion
    •    The child’s eye, playing and experimenting with its view of the world
    •    The dream eye, which can deconstruct reality.

No matter which “eye” you employ, once you’ve collected details and images, you’ll need to be able to transform them into phrases, sentences and paragraphs your reader will understand and appreciate.

There are, of course, many ways to relay descriptive information to a reader:

    •    By type or sensory perception—the smells, colors, textures, etc.
    •    By proximity—details that are grouped together: the appearance of a character, the items on top of a dresser, flowers in a garden
    •    By quality—separating the sweet from the sour, the melodious from the discordant
    •    Chronologically—listing actions as they occur
    •    Spatially—moving in a pattern through the space being described.

Some patterns lend themselves to certain kinds of description: Spatial descriptions are obvious choices for establishing setting; chronological descriptions can be woven through action as it unfolds. But don’t limit yourself. Try employing unexpected methods of description to different types of material. What happens when you reveal a character’s personality chronologically?

You’ve no doubt been warned about the weakness of the passive voice. But strong writing requires more than simply switching from passive to active word choices. It requires concrete details, specific nouns and verbs (which in turn means reducing the number of adjectives and adverbs) and precise, uncluttered prose. Whenever you write, carefully examine your word choices to make sure you are using the best word for the job.

Beyond the dictionary definition of a word lies its deeper meaning(s). The length, complexity and sound of a word all contribute to its connotation. The dictionary defines connotation as “the suggestion of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes.” It’s because of these subtle shades of meaning that word choice is such an important element of creative writing.

When you’re searching for that perfect word, don’t automatically reach for the thesaurus. Consider the adjective eccentric. Roget’s II defines it as “deviating from the customary.” To most of us, eccentric connotes an almost charming level of oddity; quirky is a synonym with a similar charm quotient. But among the other alternatives suggested by Roget’s are: bizarre, curious, erratic, freakish, idiosyncratic, odd, oddball, peculiar, quaint, queer, rum/rummy, singular, strange, unusual and weird.

Words like freakish, bizarre and weird have a more negative feel. These words not only describe the behavior, they imply the author’s feelings or judgment about that behavior. Idiosyncratic has a diagnostic tone about it; it might be better suited to a psychology essay than to a short story. Curious, peculiar and quaint are daintier words; they tiptoe around the behavior, peer at it cautiously and name it delicately, avoiding offense. Unusual and strange are rather general—perhaps too generic to be of much use. Queer has contemporary slang associations that differ from its intended meaning.

A word’s definition appeals to the intellect, while its connotation appeals to reader’s emotions. Beyond that, words can affect readers subconsciously, subliminally. This has more to do with the shapes and sounds of the words than with their explicit or implicit meanings.

When it comes to word choice, the diction of the word is just as important to consider as the meaning. Staying with our examples above, bizarre is a sharp word—it cuts and bites with its hard “b” and that buzz-saw “z” in the middle. Quirky is a much lighter word—it rhymes with perky and is almost fun to pronounce. Curious and peculiar have the soft, rounded “y” and long “u” sounds that roll around pleasantly in the mouth.

As a general rule, words with long vowel sounds (“o” and “oo”) tend to feel softer and rounder. They can have a calming effect on the reader, and can even have the power to slow the pace of your writing. Words with hard consonant sounds (“k” and “d” and the “th” sound of “the”) sound sharp and forceful, particularly if they’re short, while words with softer consonants (“m” and “n” and “l”) evoke a more soothing, comforting mood. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these soft consonants and long vowels are the first sounds infants imitate, learned from the soothing cooing of adults (notice the “oo” sound in “soothing” and “cooing”).

Choose a descriptive passage from a recent piece of writing and read the work aloud. Does the rhythm of the words evoke the mood and emotional response that you’d intended? Speaking the words you’ve written is a great way to bring all the hidden effects of your word choices to the surface.

Note the difference in mood in the following passages, both of which essentially describe the same scene:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Throughout a quiet, overcast autumn day, when gray clouds lay soft and low in the sky, I had been enjoying a solitary ride through an unremarkable expanse of countryside, and after a time found myself, as twilight faded to velvet dusk, within view of the unhappy House of Usher.

The first passage, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” demonstrates that writer’s ability to set the stage for a classic Gothic story of decay and madness. How different the readers’ expectations would have been had Poe decided to use the second version of this passage to start his story. “Dark and soundless” is infinitely more sinister than “quiet and overcast.”

As you work on any piece of writing, experiment with your word choices. Say your sentences aloud, and consider the overall tone of your writing. Practice choosing the perfect words for your descriptions—the words that will leave a lasting impression with your readers.

Excerpted from the Creativity & Expression Writers Online Workshop.

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