Seven Tips for Descriptive Writing

The following comes from Bruce Porter. It’s rare that a journalism prof. will offer advice in the form of lists, but he has been teaching at Columbia and Brooklyn college long enough to know how to get important ideas across succinctly.

1. Don’t be literary or lyrical
If it makes you feel like Walt Whitman inside you are probably being too self-conscious and that comes across in the writing. Aka, it’s crap.

2. Be specific: Don’t go into detail about the “blue sky” and the “white clouds.” Readers know what color the sky is, so don’t describe it for them. It’s the oddities that paint a scene. If you are describing a diner, don’t write about the booths and the counter. Mention the ketchup stain on the window or the cheeky writing in the men’s bathroom.

3. Make them do something: Use descriptions that move the story forward. Don’t just list things, make sure they are descriptions that help tell the story.

4. Be economical: Don’t let the reader know you are being descriptive, it should sneak its way in.

5. Create a backdrop: This is more about a type of description that should be used when setting the scene which helps tell the story. Describing the backdrop of a drug den will pay-off if you are writing a story about a drug dealer/user

6. Prove you were there: Careful description makes a scene more believable for readers. They know the reporter was on the scene.

7. Show me what you told me: If you write something vague go into the details that show the reader what you mean. Don’t expect them to understand abstract thoughts, they need concrete examples to move the story forward.

The following cost me $40,000 in tuition. I offer it to you for free (donations accepted)

14 thoughts on “Seven Tips for Descriptive Writing”

  1. Oliver, just so you know, he totally fixed it in the title after I commented. Didn’t fix it everywhere, though…

    Time stamp noted.

  2. I’ve had a couple of late working nights and haven’t really had time to do some of the little things for this blog like… oh, you lah know… reading my posts after I furiously write them.

    I opted out of going into detail about the Beck concert I saw last night.

    Most of my attention is going towards the first few posts at a new blog that I’ll be guest editing for the next 3-4 months. Praise be Alah the site will launch sometime next week.

  3. Tâ??I suspected as much. Let’s say that my comment was a follow-up to alert a certain blogger that there were extant “discriptions” in the body copy.

    Davidâ??I should have added in my previous comment that I do appreciate the $40,000 worth of advice. Keep up the good work.

    Number 4 still says “decriptive” though.

  4. I’m doing descriptive writing for my english coursework and this advise is really going to help me. Thank you.

  5. Don’t get why the comments are so negative.
    This was very helpful. These are the little hows and whats that are so important. Not tips like “Include imagery” or “use your senses”. These are about the way, much more important. Thanks

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