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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Writer's Mind: Descriptive writing

The same sentence in my current wip (writer's shorthand for "work in progress," in other words, our current writing project) earned rave reviews from my critique partners.

"The predawn sky was clear, the moon sliding behind the pines surrounding the house. "

I'm not sure why that sentence caught their attention; it seems fairly prosaic to me. But I have been told by others that I am a strong descriptive writer. So now my challenge is to capture the process of how my mind comes up with strong images.

Some ideas:

Read. I notice well-done description in books that I read. The right description can set mood. My favorites for this skill are James Lee Burke and Nancy Pickard. I read for story, but every now and then a sentence or paragraph grabs my attention and I pause and consider. Like any other craft, we can learn from the masters.

Practice. For a time I drove my family crazy jotting down descriptions of different places we visited. At the restaurant--ball field--doctor's office--bring it to life with your words. Use all five senses. How would you describe the total experience to someone who has never been there? What small details would let the reader know this is a small family restaraunt or an upscale boutique? Without coming out and saying so, of course.

Similes and metaphors. In the process of learning how to "show not tell," I discovered the beauty of similes and metaphors. For a time I tended to pepper my writing with too many, but the practice made me a stronger writer. In my current wip, I said "She couldn’t imagine living away from the ocean, the crashing waves, the pine and spruce that crowded the shore like God’s army" and "Trying to stop a boy from playing red coats and patriots was like trying to stop the snow—impossible. " Ideally, the description will go beyond describing physical attributes and illustrate an internal truth. My heroine feels safe in her home because the trees remind her of God's presence; she is tired of the constant snow.

There are a few opening statements. Anyone interested in part two?


Mary said...


Showing instead of telling draws the reader into a book. One such book from my childhood was Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. It is still in print...a classic.

If you'd like to read my course assignment on descriptive writing using the five senses, it can be seen here:

Tami said...

Good stuff! Bring on part two! :)

Frances said...

Description is my weakest point. Sometimes, I forget to include it at all until one of my crit partners points it out. lol. This is great, Darlene. I'm determined to start working on it.


Grateful Grammy said...

Yes! Please share more! This is very helpful!