The Quiet Words: Week 5

Understanding details

Descriptive writing

By now you’re hopefully getting into the swing of your creative project and if you haven’t yet started writing it,  I hope that at the very least have an idea that you’re ready to start writing. This week’s and next week’s modules are designed to help you craft and elevate your writing. My hope is that you will read and re-read these modules while you are writing to take advice, encouragement and inspiration.

So let’s start with description. Some people don’t have time for overly descriptive writing. They like their writing brief and sparse. It is a style of its very own. You might like your writing like that too. But I love imagery. I love description - not purely for the sake of it, but for drawing me in - both as a reader and a writer.

Description is detail, and detail which is observed accurately and translated into words can bring a piece of writing to life. You may have noticed this in my writings on my blog; you’ll see it certainly in my book. A wine glass, falling from a table likened to a tumbling rose. Speckles of dust turning in a shaft of sunlight, like slow dancers in love.

As a writer, I love the lightning that jolts through you when you happen upon the description you’ve been searching for. When something mundane becomes likened to something atmospheric and beautiful, it is moving and even profound. It’s a transformative feeling. It’s magic. It’s those sparks again. I long for you to know that thrill.

But too much description, too much of the flowy stuff - and you’ll lose not just your own train of thought but your reader’s too. Description is powerful, it is emotive, evocative; it is all of those things, but only if it’s used sparingly.

When to use description

Let’s think about what the purpose of description is. It’s to help your reader form an image in their mind of the person or place or object or atmosphere you’re writing about. It makes your writing real. It helps you create a world that is believable even when it’s not. It’s a way to visualise, only in words.

It is also, yes, a chance for you to show off your writing skills - because the most breathtaking descriptions are the ones that don’t just use everyday similes and metaphors. A beautiful description should cast a spell on your reader, leave them absolutely enchanted. That’s when sparks fly. That’s why I love writing them.

When it comes to your descriptions, ask yourself if it slows your writing down or propels it forward. If you are deliberately talking about a slow summer’s day, for instance, then by all means, slow it down with some delicious description of stillness and soft sunlight. But if you’re trying to get a message across in a blog post, for instance, or in an article or introduce a character, then you don’t want to stall it. You don’t want to lose your reader’s interest.

Here’s when it really pays to read the craft of writers you admire, in whatever form they may write, as I talked about last week. It really pays to see how those writers that inspire you mould their words. Again - look at the pacing, the language, and how often they don’t spell everything out in order for you to know what they’re talking about. They show, they don’t tell (and more on this next week).

Descriptions are when you can really work at crafting your writing in a creative way; they aren’t free-flowing morning pages or spontaneous notes from a journal. And again, it doesn’t matter what kind of writing you’re working on; this applies even to a social media caption as much as it does to a first draft.  When you find yourself cutting and deleting and searching for a better word - that’s when you know you’re writing creatively.

Remember that every single word conveys a meaning and carries weight and must be there for a purpose; if it’s superfluous and is only there because it sounds nice, that’s not enough. For me, a description isn’t just a way to tell your reader what a person or an object looks like - it’s more about the mood and atmosphere I’m trying to convey.

Searching for the right words for a description requires a lot of brainstorming and precise thinking. I literally scribble longhand, trying out all sorts of different variations of adjectives until I find the one that conjures up the mood I’m wanting to convey.

Try doing this longhand too. Writing longhand really connects you to your words, and it means you can keep the variations without worrying about them being in the right place in a word file. When you hit upon descriptions you feel capture exactly what you want to convey, rewrite them into that Beautiful Words file you will already have created on your computer - that way you’ll have a bank of your very own descriptions that you can refer to as and when you need them.

A little sidebar on metaphors and similes

I don’t want to give you all a GCSE lecture on English language, and I certainly don’t want to get hung up on technicalities, but let’s take a second to recap the difference between metaphors and similes, if only so that you can spot them when you see them and know what feels more powerful and impactful to you.

Both similes and metaphors are figurative - ie, they are figures of speech, ways of saying something.  Both similes and metaphors take one thing and liken it to another. Similes use “as” or “like” in the comparison, whereas a metaphor states the comparison directly, as if it were real.

Some incredibly obvious examples for you: “He was as brave as a lion”  or “sly like a fox” (similes). “The air was thick with sadness” or “her dreams blazed through the night” (metaphors). You will know this already; I’m just throwing the terms back in there for a moment so that you know what I’m referring to next.

How to create memorable descriptions

Try taking a standard description and then enhance it by using your own version by thinking of words in the same family of comparison, but words that are more unusual as adjectives or in the context of similes or metaphors. Let me show you an example of what I mean:

Let’s say you’re writing something about a dark night and you want to describe the sky.

You might start with a simile, like “the sky was as soft as velvet” or “as dark as black velvet” or “smooth like velvet.” Perhaps you’ll write it as a metaphor instead - “Tonight, the sky is velvet.” It is a pretty enough comparison, but still a little overused. Yet we all know the gist of what those descriptions mean and the images they conjure up of softness, richness, deepness and darkness.

So next, take those words - softness, richness, deep and dark - and brainstorm other words around them that conjure up that same feel and sense.

Pick the descriptive word apart - in this case, velvet. Literally pick it apart. So: what is velvet? Well, we know velvet is a fabric; so then, what other fabrics give the same feeling? You could settle for silk, and again, that’s pretty enough - “the night sky was as smooth as silk” or “The sky is silk tonight” - but still not quite original. Silk also lacks the depth of velvet. So keep searching for textures that could make a sky feel like velvet. A sky like wool certainly wouldn’t work. A sky like cotton wouldn’t work either (though clouds like cotton or gossamer could work for the wisps of a spring day).

As you work through textures, you might possibly stumble upon the word fur.

“A sky like fur” sounds… strange. But what is it about the fur that you are likening the sky to? It’s the texture, the feel, the depth - right? And what does fur feel like? Soft and thick.  And so then you might have “The sky, soft as fur” or “the sky was thick like the darkest fur” - and now you’ve got something you can play with and make work. Now you’ve conjured up something different, textured and suddenly more mysterious and original. And because it’s slightly wild, slightly off-centre - you’ve created a memorable description too, because it’s not cliche and it’s not overused. And that’s how you make your writing stand out.

Don’t be afraid of picking metaphors and similes that you’ve never heard before. It pays to be a little wild in your perceptions -  because often that’s where the most original and magical words are hiding. You want your descriptive writing to feel like fireworks - unexpected, rare and explosively wondrous when they appear.

Homework

One: Let's play with some original descriptive writing. Take the following very cliched similes and see if you can unpick them, the way I did in the previous section, and come up with your own uncliched version. I'd love to see what you come up with, so please do share what you come up with in our Facebook group:

"The house was still, as quiet as a mouse."

"She cried, her heart as heavy as lead."

"The little boy got up again, as brave as a lion."

Two: Continue with your creative project and simply keep in mind what you’ve read here about description and if there are ways you can bring in some descriptive writing into it.

If at any point you are starting to feel stuck with your project, keep up with your morning pages, dip into your journal to search for observations that might help, read a few pages of the book you chose at the start of the course, and look through your Beautiful Words file for inspiration and imagery  to get you started.

Course Curriculum Contents:

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Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5