What is Descriptive Writing

Written by Haley Boyce

what is descriptive writing

Have you ever read a passage in a book that was so realistic it made you swear that you could smell the meal cooking on the stove, hear the children laughing in the yard, feel the warm sun on your skin? If you have, go back to it and save it as an example to emulate as you hone your skills in writing descriptively. (Also, text us the title. We love a good book rec!)

Descriptive writing is exactly what it sounds like: writing with description. To make it good, though, takes more than a line of adjectives.

Take this word of advice: Stop using adjectives altogether. Relying on them isn’t writing, it’s listing. 

How To Make Your Writing More Descriptive

Imagery is the key to descriptive writing. That is, your goal is to write in a way that paints a picture in the mind of your reader.

Consider the five senses and use them to lure your reader into the scene.

Your job is to make them so realistic that your reader is able to suspend their own reality in order to become part of the world you’re crafting. The key is to describe the important details that set the scene and are crucial to getting your reader to feel what you want them to feel.

It’s Not the Words – It’s the Images and Feelings The Words Evoke

Take a look at this scene. It’s pretty basic, leaving far too much to the reader’s imagination.

Annie wakes up. It is Christmas morning. Someone had a baby. She hasn’t been home since the pandemic began. 

fairy winter landscapeThe above passage tells the reader nothing other than the character’s name, the season, and that it’s been a while since she’s been home. But where exactly is she waking up? What time of day is it? Is she alone? These details could be answered in subsequent simple sentences, but gosh, that would be boring to read. Let’s add some sparkle, this time adding details that build Annie’s world by writing with description.

In a farmhouse tucked into a naked dogwood forest, a dining chair scrapes against the aged wood floor. The scent of coffee mingles in the air with a sizzle of bacon grease and fresh pine. Hushed voices  speak of plans for the day while, in the living room, Annie tugs a quilt higher over her shoulders. She snuggles into the sofa for one last minute of sleep before joining her family for breakfast. A baby’s distant giggle brings a smile to her lips. So much has changed in two years. She lets out a sleepy sigh, hoists herself from her cocoon, ready for her first Christmas home since the pandemic began. 

This passage works to set the scene for the reader, and more so, draws the reader into the farmhouse with Annie and her family. The author supplies the reader with context clues that tell where the story is taking place, the time of year and possible reason Annie has come home, that her family has changed in the last two years, and that Annie is happy to be there. 

Descriptive writing differs with individual style, but authors’ goals are always the same — to write in a way that makes the story as real as possible.

In the words of Ernest Hemmingway, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Show Don’t Tell

show, dont' tellIn his book Sin Boldly!: Dr. Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper, David R. Williams explains descriptive writing by stating the one phrase said at least once in every writers workshop: Show, don’t tell.

This is the oldest cliché of the writing profession, and I wish I didn’t have to repeat it. Do not tell me that the Thanksgiving dinner was cold. Show me the grease turning white as it congeals around the peas on your plate. . . . Think of yourself as a movie director. You have to create the scene that the viewer will relate to physically and emotionally.

In Donald Newlove’s book Painted Paragraphs, Newlove explains descriptive writing as thus:

Great description shakes us. It fills our lungs with the life of its author. Suddenly he sings within us. Someone else has seen life as we see it! And the voice that fills us, should the writer be dead, bridges the gulf between life and death. Great description is stronger than death.

And a masterclass example of descriptive writing in action from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island:

The room was casually strewn with aging colonels and their wives, sitting amid carelessly folded Daily Telegraphs. The colonels were all shortish, round men with tweedy jackets, well-slicked silvery hair, an outwardly gruff manner that concealed within a heart of flint, and, when they walked, a rakish limp. Their wives, lavishly rouged and powdered, looked as if they had just come from a coffin fitting.

What are Some Descriptive Writing Prompts?

The water doesn’t flow until the faucet is turned on. That’s what they say about writing. The best way to become a better writer of description is to practice. If you don’t already, it’s time to carve out time for practicing your craft every day.

In your dedicated space – even if it’s 40 minutes in the morning before the sun and the kids are up – respond to one of the following prompts. Remember that this is an exercise to generate creativity. Grammar and syntax and all the other rules can be worked out later. What’s important here is that you’re allowing yourself to feel the scene in all ways. Make it impossibly tangible. 

Are you ready? Pick a prompt and go with it. 


  1. Write about your first memory. Where were you and what were you doing?
  2. Describe a family member in detail. 
  3. Describe what it’s like to wake up in your home.
  4. Describe your bed – what the sheets feel like, the firmness of the mattress.
  5. Write about what it feels like to take a sip of your favorite drink. How does it smell when you pick it up? What does it feel like as it slides down your throat?
  6. Imagine that you’re waking up in a hospital room. Describe what it’s like before you open your eyes.
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