Tips for Better Description

Dr. Gerald Grow taught journalism for many years at A&M University in Tallahassee and is the author of Florida Parks: A Guide to Camping in Nature. When writing feature stories, his students needed to provide their readers with good description. The following comments come from one of Dr. Grow’s handouts to his students.

  • Description is not what you saw, but what readers need to see in order to imagine the scene, person, object, etc.
  • Description requires you to record a series of detailed observations. Be especially careful to make real observations. The success of a description lies in the difference between what a reader can imagine and what you actually saw and recorded; from that gap arises a spark of engagement.Use sensory language. Go light on adjectives and adverbs. Look for ways to describe action. Pay special attention to the sound and rhythm of words; use these when you can.
  • Think that your language is not so much describing a thing as describing a frame around the thing–a frame so vivid that your reader can pour his or her imagination into it and “see” the thing–even though you never showed it. Portray. Also evoke.
  • The key problem in description is to avoid being static or flat. Adopt a strategy that makes your description into a little story: move from far to near, left to right, old to new, or, as in this example, down a river, to give your description a natural flow.
  • Think of description as a little narrative in which the visual characteristics unfold in a natural, interesting, dramatic order. Think of what pieces readers need, in what order, to construct a scene. Try making the description a little dramatic revelation, like watching an actor put on a costume–where you cannot decipher what the costume means until many of the parts are in place.
  • Never tease readers or withhold descriptive detail, unless for some strange reason that is the nature of your writing. Lay it out. Give your description away as generously as the world gives away sights. Let it show as transparently as seeing.
  • The cognitive difficulty in description is simple: People see all-at-once. But they read sequentially, one-part-at-the-time, in a series of pieces. Choose the pieces. Sequence them so they add up. Think: Readers first read this, now this, now this; what do they need next?
  • Remember, you never just describe something: The description is always part of a larger point. Use the description to make your point, or to move your story along.