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In the next couple of weeks leading up to the launch of my course, “Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked,” I’ll be delivering posts more frequently into your inbox. Whether you choose to buy the course or not, I hope you will get a lot of value out of this series on description. 🙂
In my last post, I pointed out some common description mistakes writers can make, and I gave you some possible fixes. In this post, I’m going to give you 4 description tools you can add to your writer’s toolbox that will go a long way toward upping your description game.
After all, you spend hours, days, or even weeks writing the perfect story, chapter, article, or non-fiction piece. You sweat over it, you lie awake at night thinking about it, and you walk around the house distracted.
It’s within your grasp to produce this, yet something’s missing.
How can you enliven your descriptions? How can you make your writing your own? How can you make your writing believable?
Description tool #1: Method Writing
Term “Method Writing” is my invention. It’s a short, daily writing exercise, and it primes the pump for writing vivid prose.
Think of your life as one big, constantly growing tapestry. Six days a week, sit yourself down and choose a small swatch of the tapestry: The first time you rode a 2-wheel bicycle without falling, a terrible day in the 7th grade, being chosen last for the basketball team during gym class, the first time you drank vodka…the list is, literally, endless.
Write about this event for about 15 minutes. It’s even better if you do it in longhand. Be sure to include several of the five senses in this piece: What did you smell, touch, taste, hear, see? Focus on details.
Instead of describing how you felt about the experience, write down the physical and emotional sensations caused by the event. Remember to not be overly dramatic.
Method Writing gives you practice in seeing the world with all 5 senses. And most important – you’ll have a written record spanning the gamut of human emotions, which you’ll be able to apply to your writing. For example, your exhilaration at riding a bike for the first time will help you describe a bride’s happiness, even if you’re a guy. The shame and rejection you felt in gym class will segue onto the page when describing a man whose fiancée broke up with him – even if you’re a woman, a happily married man, or 16 years old.
After you’ve practiced Method Writing for a few days, go back to your current writing project and rework some of the more limp passages. Integrate the sense experiences you’ve been writing about in your daily Method Writing sessions. Remember that besides sight, there are four other senses you can employ in your description.
Description tool #2: Show
I’ve explained Show several times, and I encourage you to read this post for more information. Or consider buying “Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked”! (You can put yourself on the waiting list here.)
Using Show in your prose means that you are describing the effect instead of the cause. For instance, instead of “The snow was cold” (cause), how about describing the snow from your character’s point of view: “The snow landed on her face, freezing it into a scowl” (effect). Or instead of “The coffee was hot,” you might say, “The coffee burned her tongue.”
Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting.
Description tool #3: Tell
Believe it or not, Tell can be very useful when you want to write descriptively. Does that sound crazy? Before I explain what I mean, let’s quickly go over what Tell is and what it’s not.
- Tell helps move the plot or story along. This includes non-fiction, which also needs a storyline or narrative.
- Tell generally uses “to be” words, along with more passive verbs such as “have” and “do.”
- Tell gives readers a break from Show.
- Tell uses more adjectives and adverbs than Show.
- Tell is explanatory rather than experiential for the reader. We might not need to feel the snow on her face if this doesn’t serve the narrative; we merely have to read that it fell on her face.
- Tell is cause, not effect.
Why Tell is useful in descriptive writing
You definitely need plain narrative and explanation in your prose; if you employed only Show, you’d exhaust your readers. But this this doesn’t mean you can’t dress up your writing a bit.
Here are a few examples of Tell description that use power words, even while they’re showing effect:
- “Her sweatsuit was a green blur as she bounced up and down on the trampoline.”
- “Jenna absently twirled her red hair with her left hand as she figured out which color to dip her paintbrush in.”
- “The sky was overcast when they got into the car to go to the movies, and both were thankful for their fur-lined boots.”
Tell walks a fine line between overly descriptive, useless prose, and under descriptive, boring prose. For instance, in the 3rd example, overly descriptive would be…
“The sky was grey and overcast, with angry-looking clouds, as they ran to the black Mercedes. They were shaking with excitement and cold as they anticipated the drive to the movie theater. Both were thankful for their sturdily handsome, fur-lined boots.”
…while under descriptive prose might look something like this:
“It was cold. The sky was cloudy. They got into the car and went to the movies. Both of them were happy to have warm boots.”
Keep an uneven balance between Show and Tell (with Show maintaining the advantage), but don’t think of Tell as the enemy of descriptive prose.
Description tool #4: Analogy, metaphor, and simile
Analogy, metaphor, and simile are great description tools, as they use the reader’s experience and knowledge to help him or her understand what you’re trying to convey. Of course, moderation is the name of the game; don’t burden your readers with an avalanche of these description tools.
In a nutshell:
- Analogy is comparing two things that are dissimilar.
- Metaphor is making something a proxy for something else.
- Simile is using “like,” “as,” or “than” to compare two entities.
A caveat: You might have learned slightly different definitions of analogy and metaphor from your English teacher, but don’t get hung up on this; just use the devices when necessary, and don’t fuss with which one you’re using.
Remember that these tools can also become hackneyed and boring (see my previous post). So be careful.
Here are some examples of all 3 techniques:
Analogy uses a known entity to explain an unknown entity in more familiar language.
- “Imagine McDonald’s being staffed by a bunch of investment bankers, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the charity auction at Harvard looked like.”
- “Getting onto the diamond exchange is not dissimilar to winning a seat in Congress.”
- “I heard the gunshots, and visions of my tour of duty in Saigon in the early seventies sprang to mind.”
Metaphor evokes an image in your mind so you will more readily understand the idea.
- “She has that Ella Fitzgerald-type of voice.”
- “He’s the Goliath of the family.”
- “My mother’s politics match those of Atilla the Hun.”
Simile is more of a straight comparison.
- “He sings like Joe Cocker on a bad day.”
- “My grandfather is as mean as a hungry pit bull.”
- “She’s uglier than Cinderella’s sisters.”
I will be covering these and many other descriptive writing techniques in depth in my online course, “Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked.” Go ahead and put yourself on the waiting list! You might be in for a pleasant surprise… Click here to get on the list. There is absolutely no obligation to buy.
I hope this post will help you put more color and light into your prose. Which technique will you try today? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a month of coaching from me! It’s worth $297. Here’s the link to enter. Share it will others, and you’ll get more entries if they sign up, too.