How to Improve Your Descriptive Writing

Sophie Playle

Poorly written descriptions can make your writing dull. They can distant the reader and slow the pace of your writing. They reduce the impact of your words. And they can contribute to a reader putting down your book.

So, how do you recognise where you could have described something better? What should you do to avoid writing poor descriptions?

1. Don’t state abstract concepts

Stating abstract concepts (such as describing something as ‘beautiful’) does not create a vivid image. In fact, it removes the reader from the writing, as they have to then make the abstract concept come alive for themselves rather than experience it through the words on the page. They have to think about what the abstract concept means, and then apply their own interpretation to the narrative context.

It’s the writer’s job to unpack these concepts and apply them through detailed interpretation in order to bring them to life. Give us specifics. Filter details through point-of-view. Make us feel the concept by showing us what it means.

For example, instead of writing ‘The sunset was beautiful’, Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees writes: ‘[T]he redness had seeped from the day and night was arranging herself around us. Cooling things down, staining and dyeing the evening purple and blue black.’

2. Use more precise verbs instead of adverbs

An adverb modifies a verb. You can usually spot them because they end in ‘ly’. For example, ‘He walked quickly across the room.’ The adverb here is ‘quickly’ as it modifies the verb ‘walked’.

Adverbs can often appear lazy because, more often than not, there is a more specific verb that can be used in its place. ‘Rushed’ would be more concise and specific way of saying ‘walked quickly’, for example. Sometimes it takes a little bit more effort to apply a better verb, which is why using too many adverbs is often considered bad form.

 3. Avoid cliché

Clichés are also a sign of lazy description. These words and phrases have been used so often that they’re no longer very interesting or effective.

They may have started out as a colourful, inventive phrase (like describing nervousness as having ‘butterflies in your stomach’) but they’ve been used so much that they’ve lost their impact. Using clichés in your writing makes your writing predictable and dull. (However, clichés are often a part of everyday speech, so using them in dialogue is probably the only way you’ll get away with using them!)

Avoid them, or twist them into something fresh and new.

To sum up:

  • Instead of stating an abstract concept, describe it through concrete details.
  • Instead of using adverbs, use more precise verbs.
  • Instead of using clichés, invent your own descriptive phrases.

I know. It’s easier said than done. But if you’re mindful of these elements and are prepare to put a little more thought and effort into your descriptions, you’ll make a big difference to your writing.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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