Succinct tips for great descriptive writing

Handwritten once upon a time in pencil

Succinct tips for great fictional or non-fictional descriptive writing – from Bruce Porter, journalism lecturer at Columbia College.

See an example here of how to turn a boring opening sentence into an engaging description.

1. Don’t be literary or lyrical

If it makes you feel like [a poet] inside you are probably being too self-conscious and that comes across in the writing [as forced].

2. Be specific

Don’t go into detail about the “blue sky” and the “white clouds.” Readers know what color the sky is, so don’t describe it for them. It’s the oddities that paint a scene. If you are describing a diner, don’t write about the booths and the counter. Mention the ketchup stain on the window or the [graffiti in the bathroom]. See an example here.

3. Make them do something

Use descriptions that move the story forward. Don’t just list things, make sure they are descriptions that help tell the story.

4. Be economical

Don’t let the reader know you are being descriptive, it should sneak its way in.

5. Create a backdrop

This is more about a type of description that should be used when setting the scene which helps tell the story. Describing the backdrop of a drug den will pay-off if you are writing a story about a drug dealer/user

6. Prove you were there

Careful description makes a scene more believable for readers. They know the reporter was on the scene.

7. Show me what you told me

If you write something vague go into the details that show the reader what you mean. Don’t expect them to understand abstract thoughts, they need concrete examples to move the story forward.


These tips were published at Digidave blog, 16 October 2006.

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About the Author: Dan Blore
Dan Blore manages and teaches at Extended Learning Centres. He has spent 15 years in education, having studied secondary education at University of the Sunshine Coast. He has taught in Australia and Germany and studied at university in Italy. He most enjoys teaching and studying mathematics and languages, both of which he focused on at university.

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