How to use writing to create pictures in the reader’s mind
Why use descriptive writing in the first place? Because your readers are busy. Distracted. Overwhelmed with messaging. And it’s incredibly hard for your writing to stand out amidst the clamour and racket.
But when you create pictures with words, you help the reader to see and sense what you see and sense. You’re on the same page. Your writing is more memorable.
Plus, unlike movies, the writing we do in our professional lives is not visual. We can’t invite the reader to sit back and enjoy all the ‘description’ that’s produced by a camera and a microphone. We must ensure that every word works hard.
Consider the difference between, “I could see that he was irritated” and “His face looked like the sky before a Joburg storm.”
Other writing types
Descriptive writing isn’t the only type available to us. There are three others.
Expository writing is the most common writing type. It delivers information, explains a concept, or tells the reader about a subject. Often you’ll find that expository writing has a logical order or deliberate sequence. It’s what we see in news articles, technical writing and some business writing.
For marketers, expository writing is best when you offer useful information to prospects, explain how something works, or strive to build authority.
Narrative writing or ‘storytelling’ — the buzzword of the 2010s — is prose that, yup, tells a story. There’s usually a plot and characters, and sometimes even dialogue. The structure is beginning-middle-end, crafted with open loops and teasers to keep the reader asking, “And then what happened?”.
By introducing conflict and closing with a resolution, narrative writing works best in product or service pitches, including above-the-line commercials.
Persuasive writing contains reasons and justifications for why the reader should think a certain way or perform a specific action. In attempting to make the reader share a point of view, it tries to convince the reader to take a side.
You’ll find examples in reviews, email campaigns, ad copy and sales funnels.
When to go descriptive
Let me first admit to a bias: I believe that, until you’re able to write really good descriptions, you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near narrative writing or storytelling. No matter what your Donald-Miller-reading manager might think.
Descriptive writing is the Woolies training bra you must get comfy in, before trying to pull off a Wonderbra.
So, what’s involved? Descriptive writing rests on carefully selected detail. It brings to life places, people, events, situations, objects, and locations, usually by incorporating the five senses. It’s most effective when used to spell out the benefits of a product or service, relate experiences, convey Before-and-Afters, and share value propositions.
It can also be woven between other writing types, to add colour and vividness to text.
How to write descriptively
1. Be specific.
Think of a tree.
Seriously… Think of a tree…
The tree you’re seeing in your mind is likely to be entirely different to the tree I’m seeing? So we’re not sharing a visual. You have yours; I have mine.
Now think of a Jacaranda tree.
You and I are probably thinking of roughly the same tree, covered in clusters of fragrant lilac blooms.
How come? Specificity!
The moment you offer the reader a detail or example, you’re on the same page.
But, when you sit down to think of the right details to offer, go beyond those that jumpy readily to mind. They’ll most likely be boring or over-used, like “green as grass”. Work harder to find original and interesting details to use.
Consider the difference between, “She was besotted with him” and “She wallpapered her bedroom with his Instagram selfies.”
2. Be selective.
Descriptions? Great. Obvious descriptions? Less great. One of the most common traps writers fall into is using predictable words; think “firm handshake”, “happy smiles”, “tiny baby”, “fruitful discussion”, “mutually beneficial relationship”, etc.
These modifiers are unnecessary and will make your writing heavy. They’ll also ‘dilute’ the effectiveness of the juicy descriptions you may use elsewhere in the text.
And, on that subject, resist over-description. Less really is more, so try to limit yourself to one or two unexpected details the first time you introduce a setting, and let the reader fill in the rest.
Use the best details you can find. Good description is about quality, not quantity.
For instance, if you say, “The office is sparse, except for the looming buffalo’s head on the wall,” readers can fill in the details for themselves without your describing the carpets, the windows, and the furniture.
3. Resist nothingy modifiers
“The meeting was just terrible.” Not helpful. Why was it terrible? How was it terrible? What was terrible about it? For what reason was this surprising to you?
Statements featuring empty opinions offer no meaningful information whatsoever.
“The sunset was beautiful. The concert was noisy. The seating was comfortable. The food was delicious. The weather was awful. The speaker was excellent.” Meh. There’s nothing in there. Don’t opine, unless you’re taking a stand. Rather describe.
4. Show, don’t tell.
Telling offers a conclusion, which readers may not accept because it’s not their conclusion. It keeps them at arm’s length. Showing creates an immediate, vivid mental image, bringing readers in and helping them to feel what the narrator felt.
This is telling:
“He was outside clipping his hedges. I hadn’t seen him for several months and was shocked and saddened by his sudden frailty. We shook hands — his was bony in mine, the flesh dry and cool. His trousers and sweater were loose on his frame and emphasised how much weight he’d lost (Paula LaRocque, Quill, 2008.)”
This is showing:
“He waved his hedge-clippers at me, and I paused, jolted by his new frailty. His ancient grey trousers hung on his hipbones, and the old cardigan loosely draped his hollow chest. When he extended a cool, dry hand, I clutched it, eyes stinging. It was like gripping a bird’s claw (Paula LaRocque, Quill, 2008.)”
5. Exaggerate. Personify. Alliterate.
Hyperbole! Sometimes I love it even more than I love my 10-year-old.
Kidding. But see what I did there?
Hyperbole refers to deliberate exaggeration, often for comic effect. Here’s a gorgeous example from Dave Barry in Revenge of the Pork Person: “A man can have a belly you could house commercial aircraft in and a grand total of eight greasy strands of hair, which he grows real long and combs across the top of his head so that he looks, when viewed from above, like an egg in the grasp of a giant spider…”
Personification is when we attribute human qualities to an inanimate object:
“I loved my ancient Fiat Uno but the car didn’t always love me back. It chose the worst possible days to get sick on me, cough a couple of times, and refuse to move.”
It’s an excellent way to transform a flat description into something more dynamic.
And as for alliteration, the peak of presentation power for all poignant prose? This is the repetition of similar sounds in a sequence (see previous sentence and, indeed, this sentence). Although you’re more likely to find alliteration in poetry, it can enhance a piece of writing when used sparingly and in the right places.
Here’s a cool example from the film V for Vendetta, where V introduces himself to Evy using a speech full of alliteration that ends like this: “The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.”
I really can’t think of a better conclusion than that. Markman, out.