Oct 28, 2012

How to Write Better Description

Photographs can help provide detail for descriptive writing
One of my lightbulb moments in writing came when it finally sank in that specific was better than general. For example, we could say:
The boy bounced the ball.

But we can all see that's pretty vague. It doesn't conjure any clear image in the reader's mind. Perhaps say:
Bobby Reynolds dribbled the basketball across the court.

Now we have a better idea of what's happening. And I'd have to admit, that last one is how I'd probably describe a boy playing basketball. Other than 'dribble', I have no knowledge of the game. Truth is, if I don't know what a basketball game really looks like, then I won't be painting the picture with my words. So how can we get better detail? By studying the specific. If you were to watch some YouTube clips of a game, read up on the rules and lingo or even better, turn up for a live game, you'd get a better feel for the actions, emotions and surroundings.

In our writing group last week, we looked at improving our descriptions by using more specific detail. This was a really fun exercise (adapted from one I found in Don't Forget to Write), it involved writing and drawing (but don't worry, because no amazing artistic skills are required). You could use just about any topic for this exercise, I chose to use animals. Here's the steps:
A 'before' sketch of a crocodile
  1. Each participant is given the name of an animal (big red kangaroo, chimpanzee, octopus, draft horse, snow owl, sea turtle, rhinoceros, crocodile, etc).
  2. Once you know which animal you are using, try to draw a picture of it. There should be no visual aids or prompts, just draw from memory.
  3. Write a short descriptive passage about that creature.
  4. Now I hand out to the participants a figurine and blown up photograph of the creature, to compare to their drawing.
  5. You redraw the creature, this time taking particular notice of the small details you overlooked previously. For example, the way the fur/skin/feathers/scales sit, how the creature holds itself, the particular shape of the eyes, etc.
  6. Once you're happy with your new sketch, write a new descriptive passage, this time including some of those smaller details.
I love the little ears on the seal, I would have forgotten those without a photo.
All the animal pics on today's blog are taken by Tim Clancy
I worked on an octopus and my memory conjures up the likeness of Henry from the Wiggles:
Picture from The Wiggles official site, click to visit www.wiggletime.com
But with the help of a photo and figurine, I was able to write about an octopus in a way I hadn't considered before:

Lilly spread her arm out in front. The water was thick and bubbles effervesced from her breathing apparatus, making patterns up towards the blue light above. The octopus swayed from side to side. It floated a little closer, curious about the girl in front of it. It’s long tentacles swished and curled about, each taking their own direction, moving to their own silent rhythm. On each tentacle little suction cups pulsated. It was the eyes that surprised Lilly the most. The way they’d look right into hers, taking her in. You’re a funny thing, they seemed to say. Now the tentacles encircles Lilly’s hand, caressing it gently. It was patting her like she was its new pet. 
My sketch of an octopus after seeing a photo.
So try to get the specific detail in your description writing. A few carefully placed key words or verbs will help the reader find the scene believable. Now you try - maybe watch a clip of someone playing basketball and write a short passage? Share it if you want to. I love to see what you're writing!


  1. That was a really helpful post, thanks :-)

  2. Sounds like you have a wonderful writing group. Not being able to describe a scene is definitely a clue that some research needs to be done. :)

  3. Often it's just one or two words that can make all the difference (as long as it's the right one or two words).


  4. Tweeted and Fb'd.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  5. Thanks Charmaine. This was an awesome writing exercise. Helps to dig a little deeper. I'm going to blog about my snow owl soon.

  6. Fantastic exercise! It definitely worked for your octopus description.

  7. Description is difficult for me. My first drafts are heavy on dialogue and light on description, which is why I have to do a lot of revising. Thank you for the tips, though. I never thought of watching a Youtube video for help on description, but that's a good idea!

  8. Hi, Charmaine! Great writing exercise. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Aha! YouTube clips! There's thousands and thousands available. Thanks Charmaine.
    Your writing group really sounds awesome! You always do such interesting and fun exercises!

  10. I cast my characters with actors, collecting pictures. I map out my locations, both real and fictitious. Lately I've been spending a lot of time on Google maps at street view. :) It helps me with consistency, but also with really painting the scene. My writing has become much richer since I've started it.
    BTW, I'm impressed with your octopus.