What Makes Good Description?

As a writer I'm constantly trying to figure out what I can do better, how I can write as good as so and so and yet keep it still me. So I love to read how-to books. I have a sideways stack of them behind the laptop on my desk, and I try to refer to them often.

My latest endeavor is a book called Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively.






I often try so hard to be descriptive that I get too wordy, which I've been told is the problem with my YA Fantasy Tears. I'm looking forward to getting it back from Eric Elfman, a freelance editor, who has had my first four chapters for nearly a month. Hurry up, Eric!

Anyway, in Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan gives four ways to make description effective and bases her methods off Aristotle's writings.

1. Good description is carefully worded. While you need to name someone or something directly and give correct terms for people, places, or events being described, "good description goes beyond accuracy and precision to include the musical qualities of language."

I love this! Because writing and words in the right order can definitely be musical (and I'm a music nut anyway).

2. Good description is sensory. It makes the reader "see things." A salty kiss, a dancer's leap. Readers need to "see" what is being described or experience it through their senses.

3. Good description represents things in a "state of activity." Good description can create the illusion of movement and bring things to life.

4. Good description often uses metaphor and other figurative language. (Though it can be overdone. Agent Mary Kole has a great post about overwriting here.)

McClanahan adds that even if your description has each of these elements, it has to fit the story to be effective. "A five-hundred word description of a deserted barn might ruin the suspense of one story yet supply a breathtaking climax for another."

She also says these are only starting points, not rules to be blindly followed.

11 comments

Joanna said...

Cortney, the only "how to" on writing I have read so far is Stephen King's autobiographical take, which I loved. I have been looking out for other recommendations, so thank you for this review.

Sarah Pearson said...

Ah, description. The bane of my writing life. I have a saying for my first drafts, 'invisible people in empty white rooms'. Yep, I have the opposite problem to you :-)

Maeve Frazier said...

I am always looking for "how to" on writing books. Good for you having an agent considering one of your projects. Best of Luck! Keep us posted.

Stacy S. Jensen said...

I like the state of activity point. A new follower via the campaign. I second Maeve on having an agent considering your work. Good luck.

Anime said...

Great post! I find that I tend to be over-descriptive most of the time, but I can't help wanting to describe EVERYTHING. LOL Thanks for the follow - totally just returned it! Look forward to reading more! <3

Rachel said...

hello fellow campaigner!( and leibster blog award winner! and mormon!!!) haha, i found you through Jeigh's blog and got so excited when I saw the Book of Mormon up there! Way to go! And good luck with the writing!! :D

Lauren F. Boyd said...

Hey, Cortney! Thanks so much for your great advice and comments on my blog! I really appreciate your time and help!

You're right: upping my novel manuscript word count would likely improve my chances of getting responses from agents. And how awesome that you're working so hard to get your manuscript ready for resubmission! I hope that your freelance editor comes back with comments that you agree with and ideas for improvement that you feel you can use and that will help your manuscript.

Keep up the good work!

Lauren F. Boyd said...

BTW: I couldn't find your email address on your blog but wanted to ask you a quick question about your work on your manuscript. Could you drop me an email at laurenfboyd@gmail.com? Thanks!

Cortney said...

Thanks, everybody!

Joanna, Stephen King's is one of my TBR, so thanks for mentioning it!

Sarah, my first drafts are a lot like that too!

James Kateron said...

Students with learning differences who receive academic support in high school are going to need it in college. That support varies from student to student, just as students' disabilities vary. Each student presents a unique set of challenges. writing descriptions

Allison Bradley said...

I have struggled with balancing description in my writing. At first I had boring descriptions, then too much fluff. I'm still trying to figure it all out.

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