How to Write a Good Description: Writing Advice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "On Writing" by Stephen King. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to write a good description in a story or book? Are there ways you can learn to write better descriptions?

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft Stephen King discusses how to write a good description and the mechanics of this kind of writing.

Keep reading to find out how to write a good description.

How to Write a Good Description

For author Stephen King, description provides sensory texture to the story, which draws the reader in viscerally. You’ll primarily describe the environment and the characters.

You don’t want too little or too much description. 

  • Too little description leaves the reader without a mental world to construct. 
  • Too much description feels onerous and buries the story in unnecessary detail. Some writers get carried away, describing the world in florid detail. In reality, your job as a writer is to tell the story.

Aim for the middle. Provide enough detail to seed the reader’s imagination, but not so much that you prevent the reader from filling in her own details. 

  • For instance, King only needs to describe Carrie White as a high school outcast with bad skin and outfits that invite bullying. You automatically fill in the rest, visualizing the specific outfit, the number of pimples on her face, her outdated hairstyle, and so on. Describing her any more than this would oppress the reader’s imagery and weaken the bond between writer and reader.

Tips on writing description:

  • Visualize the scene in your head. Your job is to translate this feeling into words.
  • Choose the few details that immediately come to mind. Don’t go beyond the few key details—you need only enough to set the scene for the story.
  • Use figurative language, like similes and metaphors. When done well, they can show something familiar in a delightful new way.

How not to write description:

  • Don’t inject physical description with character, as in “fiercely intelligent eyes” or “elitist cheekbones.” This is lazy the same way adverbs are; you should reveal character through actions and dialogue.
  • Don’t use cliche figurative language, like “as tough as nails” or “as white as snow.” This makes you sound unread or lazy.

According to Stephen King, description is an extremely important part of the story and it’s important to learn how to write a good description.

How to Write a Good Description: Writing Advice

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Stephen King's "On Writing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full On Writing summary:

  • Stephen King's personal writing habits that led to superstar books like Misery and It
  • How to make a story and characters feel real
  • Why you should never use adverbs

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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