01Learn to Observe the World
As one reader, Marilyn, noted, the role of a writer has certain things in common with that of a detective: "I keep reminding myself of Sherlock Holmes's complaint to Dr. Watson," she wrote. "'You see, but you don't observe.'" It is a good starting point for thinking about description. Before you can describe something, you must be able to see it.
"Vagueness is often our first impulse when we're getting things down," writes Chris Lombardi in the Gotham Writers' Workshop's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. But it's specificity that gives our descriptions power. Learn how to be more specific by studying Annie Proulx's descriptions of Quoyle in the first chapter of The Shipping News.
Avoiding clichés is part of being specific, as we observed above, but it's worth devoting more room to them and their opposites, truly original writing. Stephen King offers these examples of what not do to: "He ran like a madman, she was as pretty as a summer day, Bob fought like a tiger . . . don't waste my time (or anyone's) with such chestnuts. It makes you look either lazy or ignorant." However, when you discover a cliché in your work, don't beat yourself up. Just think of it as an opportunity, a flashing neon sign: "Insert brilliance here."
04Ask Yourself Questions
Ask yourself the most naïve questions possible to access the sensory cues that conjure the situation for a reader (and that in life we absorb subconsciously): What sounds evoke the scene for you? What smells? What images? What physical responses would you have to this situation? And if questions don't work for you, find some other way to visualize the scene. If you can't picture it, how will you enable your reader to do so?
A journal is useful for this. When you have time, jot down notes about people and places you've encountered recently. Don't worry about plot, conflict, or character; just focus on description. And who knows? Your practice descriptions might come in handy later on if you find yourself writing about the past. (For a more structured practice session, follow the link above to a description writing exercise.)
06Target the Description
In fiction, a description should not only paint a picture for the reader but also contribute to the plot and reveal something about a character. Choose your details carefully. As Lombardi cautions, "There's a fine line between lush description and the kind that chokes the reader." If you fear you're in danger of crossing that line, consider which elements of your description serve the primary elements of your plot and which are gratuitous.
07Where Are Their Hands?
When I'm teaching a writing class, and a student brings in a story in which no physical actions for the character have been described, and in which the setting is blank, I often say, "Where are the character's hands?"
My question about the hands is to make my student aware that while their character may be emotionally present, their physical presence needs to be just as real for the reader. Therefore, thinking about where a character puts their hands immediately gives us a visual to begin to describe the rest of the world around the character.
How to Add Description to Your Writing
Evoking a three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional page is no easy task. Even professionals have to work at description. These tips will help you cultivate your powers of observation and then turn those observations into prose.