How to Make Your Sentences More Descriptive
Today’s guest post is by Jordan Conrad.
The purpose of writing is to communicate information. This is true for writing of all types—for fiction and nonfiction, for creative and technical, for business and legal.
A work of fiction communicates information by telling a story, while an email to an employee communicates information in a much more direct way.
In either case, the author accomplishes the goal of information sharing by using descriptive language to convey detail.
Here is a passage that isn’t very descriptive:
- Beth first met her spouse in California.
The sentence is fine grammatically, but it isn’t very interesting. What were they doing in California? How did they meet? Did they fall in love head over heels, or did their relationship grow over time as they got to know one another?
All of these details are interesting—and possibly important.
I will include a caveat, though. You don’t want your sentences to be too descriptive, or they will be equally as boring, like this sentence:
- When Bethany first met Elijah at a rooftop cocktail party at the Standard Hotel in downtown LA, he was wearing polished leather penny loafers with beige argyle socks, dark-blue jeans from GAP that looked brand-new and a crisp, a white cotton dress shirt that he accentuated with a 1970s-era stainless-steel Tissot Chronograph watch that made him look like an off-brand Bond villain from a film that had been disowned by its director and credited to Alan Smithee.
Who needs all that detail? At some point, you probably thought, Stop telling me what Elijah is wearing; I don’t care anymore.
Good writing is about balance. It is possible to be too descriptive, and your writing will suffer just as much as if you aren’t being descriptive enough. With that cautionary tale in mind, here are a few tips for making your writing more descriptive.
Tools of Description
Verb choice. Selecting colorful verbs is one of the easiest ways to make your writing more interesting. You don’t even have to add extra words; your sentences need verbs anyway, so just choose good ones.
- Did someone walk across the room, or did they stumble across the room (maybe in a drunken haze)?
- Did someone laugh at a funny joke, or did they giggle, or chortle, or guffaw?
English is full of descriptive verbs, and they can make your writing more colorful. Be careful, however, not to use verbs that are too uncommon or strange, or you run the risk of losing description and creating distraction.
Eliminate adverbs. One of the oft-cited rules of fiction is that you should never use adverbs. Stephen King once said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
The thinking is that adverbs modify verbs, but your verbs should be strong enough by themselves such that they don’t need to be modified. In other words, to say eliminate adverbs is just another way to say use strong verbs.
Consider this example:
- A deer ran across the road furiously, and I hit the brakes immediately.
In this sentence, the adverbs are being used to create the effect of descriptive verbs. They act as sprinkles on an otherwise mundane sentence.
Let’s try eliminating them:
- The deer sprang across the road. I smashed the brake pedal and swerved to avoid it.
The verb choice here puts more detail back into the sentence.
Adverbs also have the tendency to weaken writing by adding unnecessary qualifiers, such as usually, generally, mostly, and oftentimes. In many cases, these words are used to obscure writing, not make it clearer or more descriptive.
Intentional use of adjectives. Whereas adverbs modify verbs, adjectives modify nouns. This is probably the most direct way to make your writing more descriptive, since adjectives exist for the express purpose of being descriptive.
This is where many writers fall into the trap of being too descriptive, though. The cautionary example sentence above contains eighteen adjectives, which is at least fourteen too many.
Stick to one adjective per verb most of the time. Stick to a maximum of five or six nouns per sentence too—any longer than that, the sentence should be split.
Analogies and Metaphors. Comparative language is incredibly powerful in its ability to describe. By comparing one thing to another, you bring to mind everything associated with that subject or idea you’re comparing—and these feelings can be powerful.
Analogies and metaphors are the standard-bearers of comparative language. Analogies help clarify complex topics and make them relatable, and metaphors can add a bit of elegance or flair to your writing.
Consider a famous metaphor from Picasso:
- “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
The imagery that this evokes in the mind of the reader is deep—in some sense literally. It brings to mind waves crashing over a shore and is much more descriptive than it otherwise could be, as shown in this example:
- Art makes life more interesting.
In some sense, this sentence says the same thing as Picasso’s quote, but it’s obvious which is more descriptive and meaningful.
As with any bit of description, metaphors can be overused, and they aren’t always helpful. In everyday business communication, it’s probably better to eliminate unnecessary metaphors and other figurative language.
The beauty of descriptive writing is that it bridges genres and mediums. Being descriptive can benefit your business communications just as much as it can benefit your next novel.
Remember, however: good writing and good description is about balance. If you are too descriptive, your readers are likely to get bored or overwhelmed. If you aren’t descriptive enough, you risk boring your readers.
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