10 Description Mistakes Writers Should Avoid

10 Description Mistakes Writers Should Avoid At All Costs


We write about the 10 description mistakes writers should avoid at all costs.

When we describe well in our stories, we are firmly entrenched in a character’s viewpoint using action, dialogue, emotion, and the senses to engage our reader’s imagination.

If we don’t get this right, we risk the problem of having talking, or worse, thinking heads suspended on a blank canvas. We need to describe our characters and our settings.

When we describe, we need to tell and show. In a good book, telling makes up about 30-40% of the book and showing 60-70%.

Suggested reading:

  1. 5 Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell
  2. 5 Instances When You Need To Tell (And Not Show)

10 Description Mistakes Writers Should Avoid

1. Being Vague

Be specific when you write. Don’t write about an expensive car, write about a Porsche. Don’t write about a dog, write about a poodle.

We add details to describe a character psychologically and socio-economically. We should be specific if we are going to mention details. For example, we should name the brands they use. They tell us who the character is.

Here are some great details to use in your stories:

  1. What kind of car do they drive?
  2. Where do they live?
  3. Where do they shop?
  4. Which brands of clothing do they prefer?
  5. What accessories do they buy?
  6. Which perfume or cologne do they wear?
  7. What type of pet do they have?

2. Not Using The Senses

Readers want to experience the story. The easiest way for you to allow them to do this is by using the five senses. Tell us and show us what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

3. Not Using A Viewpoint Character

Description falls flat if we don’t have a character to interact with our settings. Once you have a viewpoint character, describe what they experience through their senses, body language, thoughts, and speech.

4. Not Including Descriptions In Dialogue

We talk about where we are going and what we are doing. We comment on our environment all the time. When your characters arrive at their destination, allow them to comment on where they are, especially is something is different. Use description in dialogue.

5. Not Thinking About The Genre

We also need to be aware that genre dictates difference in length, type, details, and intensity of description.

Here are some examples:

  1. Romance novels feature exotic, far away settings that are loosely written with detailed, sensuous descriptions.
  2. Suspense novels feature gritty, more realistic settings, which are intrinsically related to the plot. Descriptions are often crisp and understated, and they add to the sense of danger.
  3. Historical novels require attention to detail and research. Writers need a wealth of factual information to make the story authentic.
  4. Sci-Fi novels generally involve a setting that causes the plot. The basis for science fiction is normally an extrapolation from known scientific facts.
  5. Fantasy novels feature detailed settings. World-building and magic are important in this genre. Writers need to create a universe for their characters.

6. Repeating The Same Words

If we do our job properly, our descriptions should form a perfect picture in the mind of the reader without interrupting the flow of the story.

As a rule, we should try to avoid using the same word more than once or twice on a page. If you are describing a prison, mention the word ‘prison’ when your character first enters it or sees it, and perhaps once more, but we don’t need to see it more than that.

Keep a list of alternative words for some of the more repetitive verbs like walk and run. Don’t use pretentious words you would never normally use.

7. Making All Our Sentences Seem The Same

Description is all about creating exciting sentences. Remember that we’re taking our readers on a journey in our books. They will encounter people and places they will never meet. Make it memorable for them.

Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander says the best writing advice she ever received was from an editor who asked her: what is unique about your sentences? In White Oleander she describes the man who changes everything like this: ‘Barry. When he appeared, he was so small. Smaller than a comma, insignificant as a cough.’ When you think about it commas can change everything and doctors always tell you not to ignore a cough.

Also important: Change the length of your sentences. They should vary. Include fragments, simple sentences, and compound sentences. Introduce white space when you need to increase your pace.

8. Over-using The Verb To Be

The two most overused words in description are was and were. You have to use them at times but they destroy most good sentences.

Don’t say: Detective Wright was tired. He drove home as the sun was setting.
Do say: Detective Wright yawned and rubbed his eyes as he drove home. The sun bled into the horizon.

If you use the second sentence, you are showing not telling. You are also using the tool of foreshadowing. A detective novel usually ends up with the reader encountering blood somewhere. It fits the genre.

9. Using Too Many Adjectives And Adverbs

Use nouns and verbs that paint a picture for your readers. Remember that too many adjectives and adverbs will result in telling.

Nouns and verbs show. Adjectives and adverbs tell. Try to avoid using adverbial dialogue tags.

This does not mean you should not use them. Of course, we need them, but don’t use them for the sake of using them. Don’t say ‘green grass’ unless the grass is spectacularly green and it must be described. Of course, ‘purple grass’ should be mentioned.

10. Avoid Abstract Words

We want to know exactly what a person or a place looks like.

Saying ‘they lived in poverty’ is abstract. Telling us about ‘the broken chairs, the pit toilets, and the radio that stopped because the batteries were dead’ is concrete.

Saying that someone is ‘beautiful’ is boring. Saying that ‘men could not take their eyes off her’ is better. Show us the effect of the abstract word on other people.

Three Exercises To Help You Avoid These Description Errors

  1. Write a scene between a child and a parent. Begin with these words: ‘This isn’t the way we usually go, Daddy.’
  2. Write two scenes. One for a crime novel and one for a romance. The characters are Jan and Peter and they are in a supermarket. In the crime novel, begin with: ‘The boxes and bottles obscured Jan’s line of sight. Where was Peter?’ In the romance novel, begin with: ‘Jan smiled at the luxurious gift boxes on the shelf, the memory of Peter’s kiss colouring everything. She picked up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. It would be perfect for tonight.’
  3. Describe your antagonist’s home by choosing 10 items in their home. Write the scene as your protagonist moves through this space looking at the items, perhaps picking them up, hearing noises, smelling something.

LOOK: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

© Amanda Patterson

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