How to Be a Writer: Lesson 3 – Write Clear Descriptions

Lesson 3 of The How to Be a Writer SeriesTo be a good writer, I had to unlearn some habits I developed when I started. One of them was how I used imagery in my writing.

In high school, I was into similes and metaphors. These are typically the first tools people learn in creative writing. I was also influenced by the singer-songwriters I listened to in the 1970s. The best of them, like Carole King, Kenny Loggins, and Dan Fogelberg, knew how to use similes and metaphors to pack meaning into brief song lyrics. Consider “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The title alone evokes images of a sensual woman whose love for someone makes her feel free and whole.

When similes and metaphors work, they are powerful and effective. When they don’t, they sound clumsy and cliche. They also don’t translate into different cultures and languages, and they can become dated. You can’t depend solely on similes and metaphors in your writing. You have to learn how to write clear descriptions.

Your experience with observations can help you. Use them to come up with concrete descriptions that a reader can experience.

Consider this common use of simile.

He scraped his hand against the stucco wall. It felt like sandpaper.

“Sandpaper” may provide enough of an image, but we can make it stronger with concrete descriptions.

He scraped his hand against the stucco wall. The sharp bumps scratched his fingertips and palms.

Or even better, let’s add the character’s reaction.

He winced as he scraped his hand against the sharp bumps of the stucco wall. As he pulled his hand away, he saw the thin red tears on his fingertips and palm.

Concrete descriptions turn what would typically be a cliche into a powerful experience for the reader.

You also need to describe parts of a scene in a certain order. This was something I learned in technical writing. When telling a user to click items on a menu, I have to describe each step in the correct order, like this.

Click File. From the menu that appears, click Open.

Suppose I had written, “Use the Open command from the File menu.” You would have to read to the end to find out the menu you use to get to the Open command and then backtrack to remember which command to use. Showing steps in the proper order helps readers follow the instructions.

Order is also important in fiction. Think of how you look around a room. What catches your attention first? Where do your eyes go after that? What is the last thing you look at? Describe each item in your scene in the order you want your reader to experience the setting.

The order of descriptions can also reveal a character’s personality. When someone sees a person he’s attracted to, what grabs his attention first? Her smile? Her legs? Her clothing? The laptop she has tucked under her arm? Where do his eyes go next? The last thing he looks at may be the most important, because that is the part of her that lingers in his memory.

Also consider how much detail you use to describe each item. Readers usually consider the item with the most detailed description to be the most important. You can use this assumption to sneak in some foreshadowing. You may describe an item that will be important in a twist later on with a small amount of detail — enough to place it in the story, but not so much that you draw too much attention to it.

The final key in writing clear descriptions is to use the appropriate terminology for the story. “Appropriate” doesn’t have to be accurate. Suppose two characters find a gun in an alley. One has never seen a gun before. The other owns several guns and regularly reads up about the latest models. How would each character describe the gun? The person who has never seen a gun may describe the type of gun incorrectly, while the gun expert may correct him and provide a detailed description.

Remember that the more knowledgeable a character is about an object, the more research you have to do as a writer to make sure you give that character the correct terminology.

Clear, concrete descriptions can make a story more engaging and easier for the reader to follow. Descriptions enable you to reveal character and provide emphasis. You can even use them to do a little slight of hand by getting readers to draw their focus away from what might be used in a twist later in the story.

In the final lesson in the series, I’ll describe how to develop your own writing style. Good luck with your writing!


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