Recently, an author told me he considers descriptive writing a “necessary evil.” We were in a pub where, supposedly, Joseph Conrad began many great novels, inspired by the majestic English coast and his global sailing voyages. It’s a Wetherspoons now, an infamous but beloved chain of bars where you complain about writing, inspired by the majestic English coast and cheap drinks.
“It’s like a tax I have to pay every time I want to introduce a new character,” he whined, just as Conrad (probably) did in the very same spot. “But no one enjoys reading descriptive writing.”
This might be an exaggeration, but it’s true that describing a person, setting, or object can be challenging- for both authors and readers-and, sometimes, it really does feel like an annoying price you have to pay before getting on with the fun parts of your book.
“Well, don’t describe, then,” I said unhelpfully.
He sighed. Eventually, we agreed you have to describe a little, but maybe not as much as you think you do. And that you shouldn’t do it too much, or for too long, or in formulaic ways. What you should do is go to a Wetherspoons by the sea, read Conrad critically, and follow the rest of our rules:
How Much Describing Do You Need?
The first thing to consider about descriptive writing is its purpose. It seems obvious: you describe a character so your readers can picture them, right? Except, this isn’t entirely true.
Even if you describe someone in painstaking detail, your readers will never imagine them exactly as you do. Being unable to translate the precise image in your mind to the page isn’t necessarily a limitation; it’s part of the power of prose. Books aren’t inadequate substitutes for films, nor should they try to be.
When you describe a character, you’re collaborating with your reader, giving them permission to create with you.
Think about when you watch a movie based on a book you love, and the actors don’t look anything like how you pictured them in the novel. The reason that can be annoying is that you have a personal connection with a character you helped build while reading about them.
You took part in the design and construction of the character. This collaborative creation of a character often connects you with someone familiar, which strengthens the connection even more.
When you let go of the idea that you should go into descriptive detail, putting specific details in the reader’s mind, an exact picture of a person or place, you’ll find you can be freer and more creative in your descriptions.
What Are Common Mistakes in Descriptive Writing?
Not only is it impossible to give readers every detail of a person or place, but trying too often makes for dull reading and pollutes the writing process too.
Consider this example:
He was thirty years old, 5’11, had medium-length wavy black hair, pale skin, and dark brown eyes. He wore light blue denim jeans, a clean white, long-sleeved shirt, and a black sports jacket.
Despite all the adjectives, specific details, and sensory language, this description is still pretty vague. Worse, it’s boring. Over-doing it with facts about someone’s appearance can become a forgettable slog that does nothing for anyone-yourself, your readers, or your characters.
Even if you throw in some stock metaphors and a simile or two to be a bit more creative with it (...medium-length wavy hair the color of coal...), it doesn’t make a sentence or descriptive paragraph much more interesting and, usually, your readers still won’t care all that much.
Similarly, the purpose of descriptive writing isn’t to show off how well-read, sagacious, and perspicacious you are. Nor is it to cram as many obscure, recherché, and recondite adjectives and/or metaphors as you possibly can into a single complete sentence. See how annoying that was to read? Your reader is the most important person, and their experience is what matters. Don’t force them to turn to a dictionary on every other sentence!
What is the Purpose of Descriptive Writing?
You do need to give your reader some idea of your settings and your protagonists’ physical qualities. If you don’t do any describing, it can be confusing and difficult to connect the story.
What you focus on and how much you do can vary, by genre especially. For example, romance requires more character descriptions than other genres, and sci-fi should usually have interesting, dynamic, and full setting descriptions.
The key is to consider what the description is actually for. Usually, a good descriptive paragraph should be much more about characterization and atmosphere than about physical details.
If you want to tell us what a character looks like, ask what their appearance says about them as a person? What does a house tell us about its inhabitants? What does your protagonist’s perspective of a new city imply about them and the place?
Examples of Good Descriptive Writing
Your description doesn’t need to be long to give your reader an emotion, a clear picture, and profound insight into your story.
“[He] was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!’”
-From Very Good Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, a writer you should turn to if you’re ever having a bad day.
In this description, we don’t just learn that the character is overweight. Wodehouse only needs twenty words to imply that he’s stuffy, uptight, and a comical, unpleasant character.
He’s able to do this because the purpose of this description is to tell you about the character, not just what he looks like.
How to Begin a Descriptive Paragraph
The typical moment to describe a person or a place is the first time you introduce them to your reader. Talking about someone for fifty pages and then suddenly dropping in what they look and act like is disorientating.
However, it’s important to try to avoid being formulaic by repeatedly introducing someone, adding a line about their appearance, and then moving on with your chapter’s action. In pre-20th century novels (before editors), this was a common practice and is why some prose of that time can feel a little dated and dull now.
Another formulaic trope to avoid is best explained by Elmore Leonard:
“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
So, describe early, but not too early, with structure, but without being formulaic. Easy, right?
How to Improve Descriptive Writing
Descriptive writing is difficult, and there aren’t simple tricks that will make yours work every time. To help, I’m going to walk you through a paragraph I worked through our online writing coaching with author Derek Hackman in his upcoming novel A Machine Divine.
Derek didn’t have a lot of confidence in his ability to write descriptions engagingly, but his individual sentences are fantastic. Where he was struggling was in integrating them with the rest of the scene.
Here’s the first draft of a paragraph in which he introduces readers to a character for the first time:
“He was tall with a slim build. Mid-thirties with medium-length wavy brown hair covered by a modest black top hat. His outfit was as flashy and ornate as his entrance. A dark-red vest with gold buttons underneath a tan tweed overcoat. In his right hand was an engraved gold walking cane, topped with a bright emerald. In his left, he dragged an upright antique chest wrapped excessively in chains and locks.”
The first thing I did was note the line “his outfit was as flashy and ornate as his entrance.” This is a brilliant sentence: it’s simple, clever, and engaging, and it would be better placed at the beginning of the paragraph because it logically leads into the rest.
Now, instead of just telling us about someone, he’s also justifying telling us about someone. If the character’s outfit really is as flashy and ornate as his entrance (arriving in the center of town in a hot air balloon), we want to know about it.
Also, it’s often great to begin paragraphs with short, snappy sentences.
What’s the Best Way to Format a Descriptive Paragraph
Continuing with A Machine Divine as our example: the next thing that could be improved about this paragraph is that it reads a little like a list of facts.
Individual attributes are in disconnected sentences and seemingly have nothing to do with each other. But when you look closely, they do relate; we just need to show the reader that more effectively.
He’s in his mid-thirties, and he’s carrying a cane. Presumably, therefore, this tells us about the character’s class rather than a physical need. If we connect those two points, it becomes more obvious while still avoiding over-telling the reader:
“Though he was in his mid-thirties, he held an engraved gold walking cane.”
Doing this also makes a descriptive paragraph flow naturally and feel more active.
Now, the paragraph looks like this:
His outfit was as flashy and ornate as his entrance. A dark-red vest with gold buttons under a tan tweed overcoat fitted his tall, slim build perfectly. A modest, black top hat covered his medium-length, wavy brown hair, and-though he was only in his mid-thirties-he held an engraved, gold walking cane topped with a bright emerald in his right hand. In his left, he dragged an upright antique chest wrapped excessively in chains and locks.
I’ve changed very little, the writer had done all the hard work already, but these small tweaks of the descriptive text make a big difference.
Next, I gave Derek an option for a heavier edit that removes more adjectives and descriptive words that might not be necessary. At this point, editing often becomes more subjective, and it’s up to the author how many cuts they want to make and up to me to try and give them an option that improves their work without taking away from their style.
Along with a quick proofread, here’s what it looked like:
His outfit was as flashy and ornate as his entrance. Under a tweed overcoat, aA dark-red vest with gold buttons under a tan tweed overcoat fitted his tall, slim build perfectly. A modest, black top hat covered his medium-length wavy brown hair, and-though he was only in his mid-thirties-he held an engraved, gold walking cane topped with a bright emerald in his right hand. In his left, he dragged an upright antique chest wrapped excessively in chains and locks.
The Rules for Descriptive Writing
Don’t worry. We all have a slight addiction to instant gratification. For those scanners who overlooked the main meal, here is your dessert.
How to write a descriptive paragraph
- Consider why you’re describing
- Let go of the idea that it’s to convey an exact picture
- Respect your reader as a co-creator
- Avoid cliches and formulaic writing
- Don’t over-do it with your adjectives, metaphors, or showing off your writing skills
- Remember your genre
- Integrate your description with the rest of the scene
- Read more! Learn from good and bad examples of descriptive writing
And for heaven’s sake, try to avoid purple prose. The overuse of sensory language, descriptive adjectives, and specific details might impress your fifth-grade teacher but certainly not the average reader.
If you'd like to work with our team of writing coaches to help you improve your descriptive paragraphs, check out our plans here.