Be Specific in Description


Description enables the reader to experience the “fictional dream“, being pulled into a story so deeply that it becomes more real than the chair the reader sits on. Description is the language used to bring attributes of a thing or person to the reader’s mind. It makes impressions, using all the senses. It is also known as word painting.

Use specific terms, differentiate from the generic

If you can’t imagine it, you can’t feel it. Generics don’t tell us what happens right now, it doesn’t allow us to anticipate what might happen next. Generics don’t allow specific consequences to occur. Good descriptions are carefully worded. They are as precise and to the point as possible. In order to do this, we must know the correct terms for the things we describe. It’s your job as a writer to made an effort, pay attention to detail and carefully choose the right words to bring the reader the fullest possible experience. You do this by choosing the most specific words possible. Any details you use should add to the experience of the reader, immersing him deeper into the story. Sentences do not all need to be packed with descriptive details, sometimes using the right verb or noun does all the magic in itself.

  • Do not burden the reader with figuring out what weapon was used in the robbery simply because you can’t make up your mind or have various ideas of possible weapons.
  • Do not describe something if you do not know what you are describing.
Vague Specific Detailed
Food Pasta Macaroni and cheese with a few pickles
Weapon Firearm Handcannons with blood spatter from the guy’s skull
Noise shouting verbal threats screamed from the top of his lungs
Building House The home he grew up in
Check if the term is specific enough.

Can you see it like a photograph? Would you know what to draw if you tried to copy it? If no, it’s generic. If yes, it’s specific.

Tools for specific writing

1. Active verbs that show the specific way something/someone moves.

He walked strode.
He lost his balance staggered.

But one must go beyond the correct name of something and call forth a particular image or emotion along with it.

2. Personalised description show the way a specific character sees the world.

Alabaster face (almost unearthly)
Bloodless face (sickly)
Milky face (smooth to the touch)

Though each describes a white skin on the person’s face, they call different experiences.

3. Specific sensory description call upon the senses.

Sensory description employs a specific and concrete detail which the reader can experience. Moving and memorable descriptions usually call upon at least three senses. Choose adjectives wisely. Words like “lovely” or “fantastic” are labels, they do not call upon any senses. Words like “bumpy” or “curly” do. It is equally important for the word to have the right sound to it. The word ripple cannot be used to describe something heavy, it simply sounds too light.

4. Negation -what it’s not.

Sometimes it works better to say what something is not, rather than what it is. This is called description-by-negation.  Repetition of what something is not, is verbal teasing. It increases the anticipation and tension as it slows down the revelation.

5. Necessity – keep it brief.

Good description fits the story and the context around it. Three hundred words describing the barn in the backyard will not be effective when the barn in fact plays no significant role in the story. Never use more words than necessary to convey the information you intend to convey. Cluttered text discourages readers and can even confuse them.

Don’t forget to specify these:

  • The character’s specific reason for his specific action isn’t given.
  • The thing the metaphor is meant to illustrate.
  • The specific memory that the object/person/event triggered.
  • The specific reaction a character has to an event.
  • The specific possibilities running through a character’s head before acting on a situation.
  • The specific rational behind a change of heart or mind.

Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.
McClanahan, R. (2004) Word painting