Creative Writing Techniques: Description In Writing

Posted at 01:53am on 14th September 2011

Aspiring authors believe that for creative writing to flourish they must be free to write without hindrance.  They're right!  But only up to a point.  Because like it or not, there are rules, and they can either be learned in advance, until they become so familiar that, like riding a bike, you're not aware of them causing any impediment to your writing; or they need to be utilised when you edit your work.


Writing descriptions may be one of the aspiring author's favourite aspects of writing a book, but it can also be one of the hardest to do well.  Consider the following, which is an excerpt from the first draft of the novel I'm currently writing.  The book is written mainly in first person, and the narrator / protagonist, Julie, sets off to visit a friend, Guy, who is a psychologist.  This is the first time his home appears in the story, so some description of the location – a real one, in this instance - is necessary. 

 "(Previously) he lived in a specially adapted bungalow, suited to the needs of his wife, who was wheel-chair bound. . .   Since her death, however, he has sold the bungalow and moved into a converted barn in the higgledy piggledy centre of Topsham, a pretty little town, on the River Exe, that dates back to Roman times and, amazingly, was once the second busiest port in England.  Guy lives not too far from The Lighter Inn, a seventeenth century public house near Topsham Quay.  I park the car and find my way to the house, where Guy greets me with a kiss on the cheek."


The first thing to note is that writing description is not simply about location.  Here, I've tied it in with a little of Guy's back story.  The reader already knows, early in the book, that Guy's wife was quadriplegic and that he's now widowed, but a reminder is needed.

The second point is that description in writing should always move from the general to the specific.  This may seem obvious, but (as I know from my edit) it's easily overlooked.  Hence:

  • ". . . pretty little town . . . on the river" is a general description which might be applied to any number of towns or villages and should, therefore, come first.
  • Naming the town and river is more specific, as is dating it to Roman times so this should come next.
  • Naming the pub, its history and location, near the quay, homes right in on the precise location and should come last.

Thirdly, descriptive writing should be precise.  During the writing of this post, I realised that I had, originally, written:

  • "Guy lives not too far from one of the oldest public houses . . ." This is a generalisation.
  • Changing the sentence to: "Guy lives not too far from The Lighter Inn, a seventeenth century public house near Topsham Quay," is more precise and, therefore, more descriptive!   Your reader now knows – and can engage with – the scene you, the author, are describing.

Fourthly, showing your reader - through descriptive writing - what a character is seeing, , is better than telling them.   This means that it should be through the eyes, thoughts, speech, and imagination of the narrator.  In the above excerpt from the first draft of my book, this is a first person account by a woman called Julie.

  • Writing in the first person all but eliminates the need for "I think / I see / I hear."  A more subtle approach to "showing" is needed.  I originally wrote: "a pretty little town, on the River Exe, which dates back to Roman times and was once the second busiest port in England."   This is the author telling the reader.  Inserting the word "amazingly" so that this reads: "and was, amazingly, once the second busiest port" shows that this is Julie's Point of View.  Through that one word "amazingly" she is seen to be expressing an opinion.
  • If this were written in the third person it might read quite differently and, dare I say, more verbosely:   "Guy had previously lived in a specially adapted bungalow, suited to the needs of his wife, who was wheel-chair bound, Julie recalled.   He'd told her that since Nancy's death, he'd sold the bungalow and moved into a converted barn in Topsham (it's doubtful that, when Guy told Julie this, he would have described it as higgledy piggledy) and as Julie drove through the higgledy piggledy centre of the pretty little town and saw the River Exe, she remembered reading, somewhere, (as author, you would need to give her some means for having acquired the following information) that it dated back to Roman times and, amazingly, was once the second busiest port in England.  She knew that Guy lived not too far from The Lighter Inn, the seventeenth century public house, near Topsham Quay.  She parked the car, found her way to the house, and was greeted with a kiss on the cheek."

And finally, as an author, remember to break the description you write into bite-size chunks.

Writing and publishing a book is about more than simply knowing all there is to know about creative writing techniques.  Careful editing is what makes the difference between being published and not.  It's a lengthy business, but one that any author worth reading will know not to skip.

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11th November 2011
at 11:24am
I just found your blog and it is a gold mine of wonderful information. I would like to follow your blog or, if you follow mine I would be notified of any new posts from you thank you so much for all your hard work.

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