Paying attention: Tips for writing better descriptions

by Darlene Foster, YA Author & Workshop Presenter at the Fall 2013 Vancouver Junior Authors Writers Conference


Writing is seeing. It is paying attention. – Kate DiCamillo

Description TipsA good writer sees everything. A good writer sees what others miss.  A good writer finds a tiny detail and creates a story using description, action and dialogue. A good writer sees with more than their eyes.

In other words, when writing a story, it is important to include all the senses. If you see in your mind a stream flowing through a forest consider what sounds you might hear, what smells are in the air, how the water tastes, and the feel of the bark on the trees or the stones in the stream. A person walking in a forest, along a stream would notice all these things and more. Make the writing real and help the reader become part of the scene.

Using more than one sense is a good way to set up a scene and build tension in a story.

For example you could write:

Taylor followed the stream winding its way through the green forest on his way to his buddy’s place.  He heard a splash.

It would be much more compelling and bring the reader into the story if you wrote something like this:

Taylor decided to take a shortcut to his buddy’s house. He followed the gurgling stream as it bounced over smooth stones toward a dark destination in the thick forest. He breathed in the fresh smell of pine trees overhead, blocking out most of the sun. A loud splash disturbed the silence and he shivered as cold water soaked his T-shirt and jeans. Musty water landed in his mouth and up his nose. 

Aren’t you there with Taylor as he is wondering what made the splash?

When you are out and about, pay attention to everything; smells, tastes, sounds, and the feel of things. Keep a notebook and write these details down. They will come in handy when you’re writing. They may also give you ideas for a story.

Just think of all the ideas you can get just from riding the bus or sky train. The smell of an old man’s cigar, the taste of the office worker’s  coffee, (you don’t have to be drinking it to taste it) the feel of the biker’s leather jacket as he squeezes past you, the sound of the teenager’s iPod. Listen to the various accents and vocal tones as people talk to each other or on their phones. Observe what they are reading, what they are wearing, how they stand or sit, how they react to other passengers.

Here’s an example:

Jennifer watched from her comfortable seat as an old man with a cane got on the sky train. He looked tired in his rumpled brown suit. The train lurched forward causing the elderly man to wobble. Jennifer stood up to let him have her seat and smelt stale cigar smoke as he squeezed past. He nodded in appreciation and she smiled back at him. A middle-aged woman in a dark blue suit and hair that didn’t move, wrinkled her nose, then took a sip of her Starbuck’s coffee. Jennifer felt a strong craving for a vanilla latte as she grabbed onto the sticky railing for support. 

The reader gets a picture of the kind of person Jennifer is and what her commute is like. The reader is there on the sky train with her.

Take a day to purposely notice little things. Fill a page or two in a notebook. Then see what story ideas emerge. There are many stories waiting to be told, if you pay attention.


Darlene Foster has written three books for children based on her travels to interesting places: Amanda in Arabia – The Perfume Flask, Amanda in Spain – The Girl in the Painting and Amanda in England – The Missing Novel.  She is in the middle of writing her fourth book, Amanda in Alberta – The Writing on the Stone.  She spent a week in Alberta this summer visiting various sites that will be in her book.  She paid attention and filled many pages of a notebook. Darlene will be presenting a workshop on description at the Fall 2013 Junior Authors Conference. Visit Darlene’s website.


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