Ensure descriptive writing serves a purpose

When creating your story’s setting or explaining what your characters are doing, you’ll need to use imagery. Imagery is necessary to move along the plot and to create tone. You even can create resonance in your writing by layering imagery with symbolic meaning – but more on that in a later entry.

When writing description, always make sure it serves a purpose. Any description should move along the plot, help develop characters and dramatic tension. If it’s solely being used to establish the location of the story or to indicate a background character’s actions, keep the description quick and simple.

You can ensure your description serves a purpose by only using those details that capture the “essence” of a place/moment/character. For example, if a landscape is supposed to be foreboding, then describe it as such by noting the lack of water, the difficult terrain, the strange outcroppings of rock. A foreboding environment would not be lush and comfortably warm.

As reporting this “essence,” always use sensory details rather than internalized ones. Sensory details (green, tart, quiet, rough) are specific rather than general. Internalized details (happy, melancholy, guilty, barbaric) amount to editorializing and give no real impression of what is being described.

If you’ve assembled several details to help relay the essence of a place or a character, you might divide the descriptions into three sections. For example, start with the foreground, then in the next couple of sentences go the middle, and at the paragraph’s end go to the background. Or try left-center-right or sky-eye level-ground.

Finally, always remain cautious about offering lengthy descriptions. Descriptions in novels obviously can be longer than those in short stories. Still, the lengthier the description, the greater the chance that the reader will forget what’s going on in the story.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.