A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Effective Descriptions

As a writer, one of my favourite parts to write is description. I love searching for just the right word or image to bring a place or character to life.

As a reader, I am most definitely in the less is more camp. If a description is long and indulgent, I’ll skip it. Pages after page describing the countryside was fine in the nineteenth century when nobody had been anywhere, but these days we have TV and Google, so we don’t need lengthy descriptions interrupting our stories.

This is even more true in the children’s and YA book world, where descriptions have to work really hard to earn their space My first novel After Eden, was originally 95,000 words long. I ended up cutting 30,000 of them – most of them the descriptive passages I so enjoyed creating.

So how does a description earn its place? My favourite descriptions are short and punchy, filled with specific details. They also do something more than merely describe.


Here are a few of my personal favourites:

1984-book-cover“The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.”  – 1984, George Orwell.

Nothing could possibly sum up bleak, functional living conditions like the smell of boiled cabbage. Cabbage is cheap and healthy. Boiling it is efficient. The smell of it is disgusting. This short description tells me loads about Winston and his living conditions.

 She was a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times around her waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips.” – 1984, George Orwell

There’s something beautifully ironic about the anti-sex sash bringing out the shapeliness of Julia’s hips. And it emphasizes the character’s boldness too.


Book Cover for The Secret History

“Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising up from the blacktop.” – The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys . . .” – The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Although she could never be accused of being brief, Donna Tarrt uses description brilliantly in The Secret History to contrast the narrator’s featureless, California home town, Plano, with the magical allure of his New Hampshire college town. Her use of adjectives illustrates the narrator’s longing for the latter.


The Sky Is Everywhere

The Sky Is Everywhere

“Joe crosses the room towards Toby, the sun on a collision course with the moon.” –  The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson.

In this brief extract, the narrator contrasts the sunny disposition of one boy with the moody, unhappy disposition of the other. They’re also both competing for the same girl, which is efficiently described with the word ‘collision’.

How about you? Any favourite descriptions to share?


About helendouglas

Author of books for young adults. After Eden (Bloomsbury 2013) and Chasing Stars (Bloomsbury UK 2014 / Bloomsbury US July 2016)


This entry was posted on March 28, 2014 by .

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