To be concrete, descriptive writing has to offer specifics the reader can envision. Rather than “Her eyes were the color of blue rocks” (Light blue? Dark blue? Marble? Slate?), try instead, “Her eyes sparkled like sapphires in the dark.”
“It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.”
The petite young girl merrily skipped around the blossoming, fragrant bushes.
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The first step in writing a strong descriptive paragraph is identifying your topic. If you received a specific assignment or already have a topic in mind, you can skip this step. If not, it’s time to start brainstorming.
Personal belongings and familiar locations are useful topics. Subjects that you care about and know well often make for rich, multilayered descriptions. Another good choice is an object that at first glance doesn’t seem to warrant much description, like a spatula or a pack of gum. These seemingly innocuous objects take on entirely unexpected dimensions and meanings when captured in a well-crafted descriptive paragraph.
“Once in a long while, four times so far for me, my mother brings out the metal tube that holds her medical diploma. On the tube are gold circles crossed with seven red lines each―”joy” ideographs in abstract. There are also little flowers that look like gears for a gold machine. According to the scraps of labels with Chinese and American addresses, stamps, and postmarks, the family airmailed the can from Hong Kong in 1950. It got crushed in the middle, and whoever tried to peel the labels off stopped because the red and gold paint came off too, leaving silver scratches that rust. Somebody tried to pry the end off before discovering that the tube falls apart. When I open it, the smell of China flies out, a thousand-year-old bat flying heavy-headed out of the Chinese caverns where bats are as white as dust, a smell that comes from long ago, far back in the brain.”
A good descriptive paragraph is like a window into another world. Through the use of careful examples or details, an author can conjure a scene that vividly describes a person, place, or thing. The best descriptive writing appeals to multiple senses at once—smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing—and is found in both fiction and nonfiction.
The sense of sight is the one that most writers consider first, but try to work on that one last. Let’s take, for example, a description of a place. What do you feel when you go there? What do you feel on your skin. Is it hot or cold? Is it wet or dry? What do you smell? Is there food? Are the smells good or bad? What do the smells remind you of? What do you hear? Is it quiet or noisy? Are there cars moving about? Are people talking? What about the sounds of nature? Are they present? Even a soft wind makes a sound. Taste is a difficult sense to describe, and the degree to which you pay this any attention depends on the subject matter. Sight comes last. Here you can describe color, size, depth, height, width, etc.