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How to Improve Descriptive Writing (Plus Two Exercises)

I have always prided myself on my ability as a descriptive writer.

Creative writing is a skill that requires development.

Creative writing is a skill that requires development.

Writing Skills Require Exercise

I have always prided myself on my ability as a descriptive writer. Where other types of writing failed me, I found that I was always able to set a mood and a tone with my writing by describing the area in the written piece. I started out floating on pure talent, but soon discovered that in order to fine-tune any talent or skill, exercise was required.

Remember that your talent as a writer is like a muscle that must be worked on a regular basis in order to keep it supple. The brain is a muscle like any other in your body: work with it and it will perform for you.

That said, I would like to share two exercises with you that work well for me.

Exercise 1: Describe Your Surroundings

This sounds significantly easier than it is, because this exercise comes in three stages.

Whether you are sitting at a desk at school or are at the park with your beloved lappy, I want you to describe your surroundings. But it isn't quite as simple as that.

Step 1: Describe What You See

First, I want you to begin by describing what you see surrounding you. Be as descriptive as possible and time yourself for two minutes. That's all the time you get! Stop mid-sentence if you need to!

My description might look something like this:

"I am surrounded by clutter. There are papers strewn everywhere, scraps with bits of writing on them that have been discarded. In the corner of my desk there are several cans where I have found myself indulging in too much cola. The surface of the desk is peeling from too many spills, cheap wood-grain paper covering the cheap particle board of the desk purchased from Walmart over two years ago."

That didn't quite take me two minutes because I think and type fast. You might have more or less text depending on where you are sitting and how much there is to describe.

Step 2: Add Sound

The next step in this assignment is to describe what you hear in your surroundings. Like describing the visual, this should be relatively easy. It is best to sit with your eyes closed for at least a minute before moving on to this part of the exercise. Once again, you have two minutes.

"The sound of the announcer on Friday Night Smackdown grates on my nerves, one of the indulgences my husband allows himself. Behind me I can hear our cats devouring their evening meal, small crunching sounds emanating from their corner of the kitchen. My fingers fly across the keyboard, making their own clacking sounds, and my daughter coos quietly from her room where she struggles to fall asleep with the sound of wrestling in the background."

We have now covered sight and sound. We have, however, five senses. There are two left that warrant describing if we are doing a description of our surroundings (taste is difficult to describe to begin with, but I don't have much to taste sitting at my desk. I don't know about you!).

Step 3: Add Smell

Let's move on to smell. Once again you have two minutes. And once again you might want to spend a minute or so with your eyes closed focusing on your olfactory sense.

"There is a slightly stale odor in the air from the house being closed up for the winter, and the faint smell from the diaper pail, ready to be taken out to the trash to be picked up on Monday morning. The aroma of my own shampoo is quite pleasant, though beneath it the chemical smell from my latest dye tickles my nose and makes me want to sneeze."

I don't know about you, but for me that was significantly more difficult than the first two senses! Keep going . . . you know the drill by now. Let's finish up with touch.

Step 4: Add Touch

"There is a slight chill in the room as night as fallen, and my bare arms feel a bit prickly. My back aches from slouching at the computer and writing, reminding me that I need to improve my posture. My nose is telling me that it is allergy season and I feel congested in my sinuses. There is a draft around my ankles, making me shiver."

Step 5: Combine

Now what I'm going to do is combine all four senses into one, longer paragraph. Take your time doing this. It doesn't need to be thrown together and it is good to put some effort into your work.

"Clutter surrounds me, and reminds me that there is housework that needs to be done whenever I find the time and can tear myself away from doing what I love. There are scraps of paper littering my desk, and my nose wrinkles at the dank smell from the diaper pail in the next room. The unpleasant voices from Friday Night Smackdown are a distraction from my focus, but the distraction gives me enough time to notice the pain in my spine and to straighten my posture. I need a break from sitting at the computer. Why can't I tear myself away?"

I feel that the above two paragraphs are a reasonable description of my surroundings and how I feel about them. If you are reasonably satisfied with your work, let's move on to the next exercise. Don't toss this paragraph! We're going to be using it!

Exercise 2: Show, Don't Tell

When I originally went through these exercises, they were done in the opposite order. However, I feel that I have given you a place to start with the previous exercise. Now we are going to work on editing the paragraph that you have already written in order to create a more descriptive paragraph.

I want you to show rather than tell. Look at your paragraph. In what areas were you telling the reader something rather than showing them? Those are the areas to work on. Let's look at my piece.

Clutter surrounds me, and reminds me that there is housework that needs to be done whenever I find the time and can tear myself away from doing what I love. There are scraps of paper littering my desk, and my nose wrinkles at the dank smell from the diaper pail in the next room. The unpleasant voices from Friday Night Smackdown are a distraction from my focus, but the distraction gives me enough time to notice the pain in my spine and to straighten my posture.

I need a break from sitting at the computer. Why can't I tear myself away?

The underlined areas could use some work. These two paragraphs are likely to become two longer paragraphs, but that is the point. You can always cut some things out later on! Using the underline feature in your word processor, underline the areas in your piece that need work. Then change them.

Bits of discarded paper litter my desk, ink scribbled on them, tossed aside, perhaps arrogantly. In the corner are several empty cans from a cola binge, but the acrid odor of a diaper pail waiting to be emptied covers the scent of stale soda. I find myself shivering slightly at the chill in the air and struggle to tune out the sound of the announcers on the Friday night wrestling program. I stretch my spine, settling into a more comfortable position as I continue to write.

In my case the paragraph didn't grow longer. In fact, I believe that I simplified it, yet the end result was a more thoroughly and effectively descriptive piece!

One Word of Warning

Please don't sacrifice personal style for "better" description. I've seen authors who try to "be" another author. They may idolize the person they imitate or a misguided teacher might have used them as an example. But please bear in mind that some of us get frustrated digging through all of the description used by Anne Rice and others are irritated by the way that Dean Koontz goes on and on. Edit well, and edit effectively, and you shouldn't have this problem!

Happy writing!

A Final Note

If you are hoping to make money from your writing here, I advise that native English-speakers continually strive to improve their writing skills and that non-native speakers work to improve their language skills.


tsering on August 15, 2019:

excellent good article

Toyosi on April 15, 2019:

The sun is gradually piercing through the cloud with its brightness as I stare out the window. Slouched on my chair, I have a cup of my new indulgence- coffee- to my left. My table has barely anything on it, just the way I like it. A feat that took intention and discipline to achieve. My light breakfast seats to my right in a shabbily looking white nylon bag. The noisy humming of my old air conditioner keeps the room from being too quiet and sounds of footsteps scurrying outside the door reminds me its an office. Just out the widow to my right is a well tendered lawn divided into two halves by a path that leads to the company’s cafeteria.

Despite the steaming vapor rising from the cup, I had earlier downed a cup of coffee even though it’s appealing smell still wafts through my nose, tempting me to an irresistible need for more of it.

Right before me, the nearest thing to touch for my dry palms, is my sleek Laptop that definitely needs some surface dusting. The feel of My wooden desk is a reminder of the knack for quality the company once had

Ven Wei on March 12, 2018:

Great tips, it definitely helped me a lot. Plus I have a English test tomorrow, this makes me feel much more relieved

alina-ramos on January 02, 2018:

this is great advise I plan on sticking too + bookmarking for future reference~

Ariel on October 31, 2017:

Very helpful thank you

Lisa on May 24, 2013:

I have a question, how do you use idioms in a descriptive writings? My exams are near and I know how to write a descriptive writing but idioms? It's confusing.

Brandon B on September 17, 2012:

The long, skinny coffee table lazily sitting in front of me is riddled with random items, pleading me to be cleaned, and does not make the best foot-stool in the world. These items are all of some sort of value, though some are just decoration, and most are mine. The items consist of remotes, jewelry, letters, books, movies, and health-care products. The sound of my father’s loud, demanding voice fills the house and makes my head ache. My stomach aches from eating too much pizza and popcorn earlier, and my eyes are heavy from lack of sleep. I roll my head in a failed attempt to sooth the pain in my neck from slouching on my couch, usually from playing video games or typing on my computer all day, but, it could be from sleeping on the couch every night for over a week. The room is progressively getting colder, and, without a shirt on, I am starting to shiver from the chill on my chest. The T.V. a few feet away from me is distracting, but it gives me an insensible feeling of safety from the black, darkness that is the night.

Becki Rizzuti (author) from Indiana, USA on May 12, 2012:

I do know how to edit the titles, but I wasn't aware that anyone was having difficulty with "How to Improve Descriptive Writing." I actually changed the title on this one recently.

You can change the link text though, if you want. Whether you use the links capsule or you do an inline link, just make the text whatever you want for it to say. "Creative Writing Exercises" would work, or something similar to that.

Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on May 11, 2012:

Did you know you can go back in and edit your title? I was going to link to your post but that title just doesn't work.

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on April 10, 2012:

This is a great hub about how to use descriptions in writings. As an EFL teacher, I often have to remind my students to use all of their senses when describing something. I have recently read some of Somerset Maughm's and Ernest Hemingway's writings. I was blown away with some of the descriptions which Maughm used in "Of Human Bondage." Hemingham's descriptions in "For Whom The Bell Tolls" also made the story really come to life for me. I am sharing this with my followers.

Jana on March 18, 2012:

They are Awesome

hooria khan on January 13, 2012:

thank u for this it helped me al lot can you please post really good descriptive writing on hub like a description of a beach or somewhere really busy but anyway this was really good

Barine Sambaris from Nigeria on October 07, 2011:

Great hub and useful too.

HomerMCho on September 07, 2011:

Great suggestions, Everyday Miracles. Looking forward for more of your writ-ups.

celeBritys4africA from Las Vegas, NV on May 09, 2011:

I should try your exercises from the very beginning.

jOHN on January 16, 2011:


Reece on January 01, 2011:

These tips on descriptive writing are great! They helped me with exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for posting them!

Lucia on June 11, 2010:

Several bags with vegetables fill the kitchen table along with plates of already consumed food. My mouth waters at the sight of the snow peas, making me wish my sleeping husband would have saved me some. Repeating commercials on TV and crossing planes on the sky are not enough to wake up the sleeping beauty. I should just poor cold water on his face, and stare stupidly at the ceiling.

A soft breeze brushes my back, soothing the pain in my stomach. No more pineapples for me at lunch.

Ronojoy on June 10, 2010:

Brilliant exercises...:) I was looking for these for a while:)

Siella on April 16, 2010:

Nice, but you didn't have to brag that much you know.

gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on March 21, 2010:

Nice hub, I like your ideas and explanations

Becki Rizzuti (author) from Indiana, USA on May 01, 2009:

@tdarby: I will be. I need to finish the current series on Wordpress and then I'm going to think about outlining some hubs on writing. I also have a poetry group on Yahoo! that I am considering rebooting.

@cindyvine: This was one of my favorite lessons that I've gone through!

Anyway, I agree with you, though I think it's possible to put "too much" description into a piece. I can't handle too much Anne Rice before my brain explodes, for example. I want story in with the description, too ;)

I plan on buying your book, by the way. Just need to get some stuff caught up first!

Cindy Vine from Cape Town on May 01, 2009:

Great lesson on how to create imagery. I always tell my students, if your writing does not creative a mental picture in my head, so that I can actually see your story like a movie, then it's boring for me. I guess that makes me a visual person.

tdarby on May 01, 2009:

This is fantastic--any other tips coming soon. I love practical exercises that I can do to improve my ability to describe.

Becki Rizzuti (author) from Indiana, USA on April 11, 2009:

I'm glad you found them helpful, Laila! I will see if I can come up with some more ideas and create a new hub if I can think of anything that might be useful for other writers. The two above are those that I found to be most helpful for me, though!

Laila Rajaratnam from India on April 11, 2009:

Thank you so much for these wonderful tips.I'm going to practice this from tomorrow.I've never had training and was looking out for tips.Yours is great.Thanks.

Becki Rizzuti (author) from Indiana, USA on April 11, 2009:

Thank you, k@ri! I appreciate it!

These exercises were done in a creative writing class that I took and worked excellently for most of us!

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on April 11, 2009:

I think I need to try your exercises! Thanks for the great advice!! I've bookmarked your page so I can come back.

Becki Rizzuti (author) from Indiana, USA on April 11, 2009:

I noticed the typo last night. I was quite irritated! My spell checker doesn't work with hubpages for some reason which leaves me at something of a disadvantage given that I type so fast and don't always go back to read it before posting. (My fault)

Thank you for your feedback!

David Lim from Singapore on April 10, 2009:

Good hub! I will definitely try what you suggested as I hope to be called a Writer one day. :)

BTW, you got a typo in your title.