At its best, descriptive writing is thoroughly enriching; at its worst, it’s a flight of fancy that gratifies the writer but bores – and perhaps annoys – the reader.
Good descriptive writing is a discipline. It requires close observation and careful word choice. It must always serve its essential purpose which is to take the reader to the scene by enlisting the emotions through what the writer sees, hears, feels, even at times tastes and smells. It should never be included to decorate a page or make a word length.
The basic requirement of descriptive writing is that the writer ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’. In journalism we ‘tell’ by reporting, summarising, announcing or drawing attention to something the reader (listener or viewer) doesn’t have time to unpack for themselves. In descriptive writing we present the scene as fully – as richly – as possible and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Readers generally find sentences that ‘show’ more interesting and engaging than sentences that merely ‘tell’. Good descriptive writing is not just stringing facts or statements together but weaving an experience of sights and sounds and sensations that allow a reader to understand. According to William Strunk and E. B. White in their classic work The Elements of Style: “the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”
So how do we tell the difference between ‘showing’ sentences and ‘telling’ sentences? Take a look at these two:
People in the village eat a lot of fruit.
Every villager eats a bucket full of bananas, peaches and apples daily.
It is easy to see how the concrete detail in the second sentence allows the reader to draw the conclusion of the first but in a far more interesting way.
So is it just a ’dog’ you’re are describing or is it a ‘sleek greyhound’? Is it just a ‘drink’ or a ‘cold, frothing beer’? Is it just a ‘gun’ or a ‘dark 345 Magnum’? Is it just a ‘vehicle’ or a ‘bright Chevrolet Malibu’?
Showing sentences are clear, more interesting, more informative, more engaging and more credible than telling sentences. So use descriptive devices to ‘show’:
Be concrete – ‘A period of unfavorable weather set in.’ No: ‘It rained every day for a week’.
Be specific – ‘He was a big hit with the audience’. No: ‘The audience stood and applauded for five minutes’.
Use figures of speech – similes, metaphors: ‘Time stands still along the narrow reaches of Hermes Street, which slashes across the centre of the Old City of Nicosia like a deep wound that has never healed’.
Write in terms of action or narrative – don’t substitute lecturing for storytelling.
Employ dialogue: “Man, that car burned so damn hot my face felt like it was on fire just watching it.”
Use strong verbs – ‘Farmers in this area are poor’ No: ‘Farmers in this area don’t have enough money to buy this year’s seed’.
Also read good descriptive writers. To my mind, John Steinbeck is the master. James Lee Burke – when describing weather or landscapes – is close to an equal. Ernest Hemingway is unbeatable for good description using an economy of words.