How To Write Perfect Descriptions

Over the past month I've gotten a lot of emails from my subscribers about tips on writing descriptions. Because descriptions are such an important part of our stories and tomiadeyemi.com is here to help you, I thought today would be a great time to write a post on it!

Now you and I both know there are a lot of different types of descriptions we need to conquer in our writing:

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Dialogue
  • Physical Actions
  • Emotional/Internal Thoughts
  • And probably 10-20 other things I'm forgetting

Each description above could easily be it's own blog post, so instead of trying to tackle the specifics of all of them I'm going to give you 5 tips you can apply to every description in your novel so you can master every description at once

Tip 1: Don't try to make your descriptions perfect on the first draft

If you've been with me awhile you know this is a big tip for me because I'm all about empowering writers to get the tools they need to hold a finished book in their hands.

A big part of that journey is realizing your first draft is your first draft for a reason. If you waste your time trying to get every single description right the first time around, I can almost guarantee you'll never finish that book.

I'm speaking from experience here - on my first book I let my perfectionism take control & convinced myself that if I took a lot of time I could "write it right" on the first go. The result? I wasted months when I could have finished the draft in a few weeks. And when I was done I still had to rewrite everything 10-20 times!

On my latest book I whipped out the 250 page first draft in 3 weeks. I wasn't burdened by my perfectionism, so I could write freely and best of all quickly.

I'll write a post on this 3-week writing experience later, but for now the takeaway is clear. If you're struggling with your descriptions during the first draft of your book, stop. Focus on finishing the book first!

It'll make writing it a lot more fun and give you something you can revise later.

Tip 2: Less is more

As writers our imaginations are active and often we see our stories like movies in our heads. We know the placement of every freckle on our protagonist's face, we hear the cinematic score during the big, dramatic scenes.

When the visual is so clear in our minds we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to translate this visual perfectly onto the page. Sometimes this pressure makes us want to overload our scenes with details and descriptions, but info-dumps are never fun for the reader.

When you're writing descriptions you should think of yourself as an imagination engineer (fun term, right?) Whether you're describing a protagonist or a magic-filled battle, your job is to feed the readers just enough for them to create their own visuals in their minds.

Remember, half the joy of reading is engaging the reader's imagination. It's not your job to make the reader see everything exactly as you do in your head. You just have to give them the right details for them to paint a picture with your words.

Here's an example from one of the most popular stories in human history (and probably the story that made a lot of us want to be writers).

Take a moment and picture the outside of Hogwarts castle. What do you see? Is it the stone towers and the arches? Perhaps the clock tower and the owlery?

Your imagination might be tinted by the Hogwarts you recognize in the movies, but before the films J.K. Rowling managed to give millions of readers the perfect image of this magical castle. And guess how many sentences it took?

"Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers." - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

That's it! One sentence!

That's all she gives the readers in our first introduction to Hogwarts, but it's all we need to paint of picture of this magical boarding school.

When you're trying to refine your descriptions, make sure you don't overload those descriptions with details or get too focused on trying to make the reader see everything in the exact way you do.

Instead, focus on giving your readers just enough of the right details and they'll have everything they need to bring your story to life!

Tip 3: Spread your descriptions out

Now just because less is more doesn't mean you need to eliminate all of the important details.

If we go with our Hogwarts example from above you'll notice there's no mention of the Quidditch courts where Harry will spend a lot of his time or the Forbidden Forest where he'll face death again and again.

Those settings are important to the story, but they're not mentioned in our introduction to Hogwarts because they're not important in that scene.

One great way to avoid writing descriptions that are too long is to spread out the details you want to give your reader throughout the page or the story.

If you spread a description over a page you can break up the information with action and dialogue. If you spread a description out over the story you can highlight new features when they're most important for the reader to discover.

Spreading your description out is a fantastic way to breakup info-dumps. When done successfully, you give the reader everything you need them to know while keeping them excited and engaged in the story!

Tip 4: Make use of all 6 Senses

Often times our first draft descriptions focus on what we can see and hear because those details are easiest to picture in our minds. But when we only describe what can be seen and heard we limit ourselves and our reader's ability to fully immerse themselves in our story world.

If it's not natural for you to also brainstorm what your characters might feel, smell, taste, or remember in a given scene, you can go back and list your settings and then ask yourself the following questions about each one:

  • What can my protagonist see here?
  • What can my protagonist hear here?
  • What can my protagonist smell here?
  • What can my protagonist feel here?
  • What can my protagonist taste here?
  • What possible memories would my protagonist relive here?

Now it may seem tedious, but asking yourself these 6 questions in every scene can unlock an arsenal of possible descriptions for you to choose from!

I did this with my last book and it allowed me to bring the world around my protagonist to life! Just to give you one example, in the first draft of my novel my protagonist strolls through an ancient African market. 

In my second draft she's overwhelmed with the roar of haggling merchants, enticed by the smell of sweet plantain, disgusted by the feel of other's sweat rubbing against her body, and reminded of the time her father took her to the market when she was a child.

By using the 6-Sense Scene, I figured out how to take an average market scene and really bring it to life!

You can do the same exact thing in your stories by downloading the free 6-Sense Worksheet below.

Tip 5: Study the greats

Now if you've checked out One Thing You Can Do To Become A Better Writer or 4 Ways To Read Like A Writer, you already know that reading published books is a fun and informational way to learn how to write better.

If you really want to take your description game to the next level, study authors who have a talent for writing descriptions that bring the story to life. If you read a story with great descriptions you get to study hundreds of examples on how to write a kick-ass description. If you see and study enough of them you'll start learning how to write better descriptions yourself!

 2 books I can recommend to you guys now are Shadowshaper by D.J. Oldér and An Ember In the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (can you tell I write and read a lot of YA Fantasy?)

Both of these authors are geniuses at painting a picture with their words and bringing their stories to life. With Shadowshaper you feel like you're walking through the streets of Brooklyn and you can picture the people and places Sierra (the protagonist) has grown up with her entire life. With An Ember In The Ashes the ancient, roman-like empire comes to life with a masterful ease that makes you forget you're being dropped into an entirely new world.

If YA Fantasy isn't your thing I still suggest these great reads, but if you want to focus on the genre you're writing you can get in touch with other writers and see what books they recommend!

Alright, there you have it!

Be sure to download your free 6-Sense worksheets and I can't wait to share more writing tips with you next week!

Got something to share? Let me know how you write masterful descriptions in the comments!