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Descriptive writing

by Jeanita
(Ohio)

QUESTION

One comment I hear a lot is that I should be using descriptive writing more than I am. But don't most people skip over description? I often do.

ANSWER

Hi Jeanita. Too much description can certainly slow the pace in writing, and this would cause readers to skip over it. Used well, however, descriptive words allow readers to better imagine the story world.

In the opening of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, she might have written: "A pregnant woman stands at the stove in her apartment making herself a snack."

This would tell readers what was happening, but it would be neither engaging nor memorable. What Lahiri actually writes allows readers to visualize the character making her snack.

In particular, they learn of the heat and the ingredients. These sensory details bring the image to life and make it memorable.

Readers familiar with the snack, who have enjoyed it themselves, will likely have an emotional response, as the memory triggers longings, thoughts of loved ones, or cravings. They will understand that this snack is comfort food for the character:

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of her Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix.

Description need not be boring. Instead, it should pack as much vibrant, interesting detail into as little space as possible--descriptive, sensory details that evoke emotion.

Editors think of this as "writing density"--the amount a reader learns in each sentence. Handled skillfully, the denser the sentences, the more likely readers are to enjoy them.