Writing Description Checklist by Natasha Ngan
Every writer has a different style when it comes to description. Some use only a minimal amount, focusing instead on action and dialogue, with short, sharp bursts of description to ground it all. Others really build it up, winding their narrative around atmospheric writing that’s so alive it’s almost another character.
Personally, I’ve always loved description. Both reading and writing it. When it comes to writing, however, especially if you’re in the children’s/young adult arena, description is usually one of the things to cut back on. I often cut around 20k of words from my first draft during a first edit (!), and a lot of that come from description. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have any description – it’s just about being clever with how you use it.
Here’s a little checklist you can use when you’re writing or editing to keep your description concise but powerful. Of course, these are just a few things to look for, but hopefully they’re helpful!
- Is the vocabulary you are using varied? We all have those crutch words and phrases. When you’re editing, look out for them and replace them where you can with new turns of phrases. Even just switching up the verbs can be effective. Eg. My heart dashed against my ribcage. You can replace dashed with crashed, slammed, smashed … the synonyms finder in Word is your friend!
- Is your description active? Meaning, does it intertwine with the action and narrative? Eg. Leaves slapped my face as I ran, but I didn’t stop, feet slamming, beating on the muddy ground, the dappled golden light filtering through the trees just a blur around me. Think of how you can weave description in without slowing the pace of a scene.
- Are you featuring all the senses? Don’t just focus on the visual – really immerse your reader in your world by using all the senses in your description. Smells and sounds are so evocative. And what’s the texture of the scene? If your character is scrabbling on the ground, describe the way the dirt feels under their fingertips, the rich, loamy scent of the earth around them. More on 360 writing here.
- Have you relied on cliches? Again, something I spot when editing a first draft are instances where I’ve been lazy and fallen on cliched descriptions. Rewrite those parts with fresh, unexpected language. Play the scene over and over in your head to hunt for those interesting details you missed before.
- Do you focus too much on description at the start of a scene? Sometimes I’m so excited about a setting I find myself wanting to lay it all out at the start of the scene. But hold back! Readers are clever. They can pick up and piece bits together as they go. If you find yourself writing a block of description at the beginning of each chapter, break it up and interweave it with the narrative.
- Are you describing through your characters? Make your description more powerful by personalising it. Ask yourself what your characters are seeing, feeling, hearing, experiencing, and really sense the scene through them. Use those insights to add emotion to your description and keep it from feeling detached.
What are your mistakes when it comes to writing description, and do you have any tips to overcome them? Let me know in the comments below 🙂
Happy writing sweeties! x
THE ELITES (Hot Key, out now)
THE MEMORY KEEPERS (Hot Key, September 2014)