Resources for Writing Descriptions

I would answer No to both poll questions.  I find writing descriptions tedious, that they slow me down when what I really want to do is get on with the action.  When I’m reading, I often skip through descriptions.  When editing, I enjoy refining a piece of dialogue to get it just right for the character’s voice and, at the same time, to move the story on.  However, even I recognise – oh so reluctantly – that writing is much more effective when readers are shown how characters spoke, any hand movements, facial expressions and how they held their bodies, but, here I am, half way through a novel of characters who are all raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyes (or so it seemed to me).  If you are an editor or publisher, please stop reading now.  The Novel won’t be like it when it reaches you. 

I have found some resources to help writing descriptions.  I came across Descriptionari – a website where other writers post their favourite descriptions – accidentally.  To be honest, at first, it felt like cheating, like one of those pay-for-GCSE-essay sites, but it isn’t because what fits the Descriptionari writer’s context doesn’t fit yours.  Yet, it is so helpful to be able to analyse what other writers have written in similar situations.   I also find the Macmillan Dictionary Online Thesaurus  to be better than other thesauruses as it includes related words too.

Inevitably, I have also discovered, on the internet, many many articles saying, in so many words, ‘Don’t do descriptions’… and then told you how to do them.  These demotivated me.  As I put my computer down and picked up my book, wondering why all other writers could do descriptions and I couldn’t, I realised that the biggest resource of all was staring at me in the face.

Coincidentally, when I was doing a bit of clearing up at home, I found a copy of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (actually awarded to my father as a school prize in the 1930s).  As this book was falling to bits, I downloaded it on to my Kindle and I’m still reading it.  I know what you’re going to say, Dear Reader, that nobody reads The Forsyte Saga, but those people who watch the box-set are missing some of the most vivid word descriptions ever, of characters,  how they move, how they look, how they speak, how they react without speaking.

Soames looked very real, sitting square yet almost elegant with the clipped moustache on his pale face, and a tooth showing where a lip was lifted in a fixed smile. 

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8 thoughts on “Resources for Writing Descriptions

  1. It depends on the descriptions. I don’t want to read a complete physical description of every character, building and landscape, but I do want a few details to help me picture the people and what they’re doing.

    I feel description should mirror the action. If a character has stopped to look at the view, then we should see it too. If they’re running for their life it’s more likely to pass by in a blur.

    1. Agreed, Patsy. Me myself, as a reader, I don’t enjoy reading descriptions, but, I’ve noticed, that many modern writers do include copious amounts of description, particularly of people, even people who appear in the story only once.

      Another thing I feel I ought to do, btw, is to revisit Dickens. His descriptions are legendary, but, when I was reading his books years ago… guess what? I just glossed over the descriptions to get on with the story!

  2. Yes, MOH, it is obvious from your writing on your blog that you are a great descriptor. I wish you could throw some of it my way!

    Seriously, does your skill in description come to you naturally, or do you have a routine for prompting yourself to describe something or someone. I definitely feel it’s more important to describe people than things.

    1. It’s natural I’m afraid, Rosemary, I have to rein it in when I’m writing fiction! I am too likely to overdo the ‘sense of place’ thing. One thing I have done is to take a walk now and then without a camera or notebook, try and concentrate on all the things that were most interesting and then come back and write it up. I find cameras have made me lazy and this helps – I guess it would work with both people and trees!

      1. Thanks, Mary. That’s an interesting technique. I do use a camera. If I have a photo, I can look at it afterwards and find out more detail.

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