How to Improve Descriptive Writing (Plus Two Exercises)
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!
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.