The soft leather journal emblazoned with a map of the world was a gift from my sister. I carried it aboard the airplane and pressed my pen onto that first crisp, blank page shortly before take-off. At 21-years old, I was embarking on a journey to Japan--my first trip out of America and the first time anyone from my family had stepped foot in that country since my grandfather was a child. As a writer, I had the sacred duty to describe everything.
A week later, I had fifty pages of poorly scrawled notes and a sore hand.
That’s when I learned the first rule of description: more is not always better. The art of description lies not in describing everything, but in describing the right things that will leave your reader with a clear impression or experience.
Good description can be achieved with practice. Journaling my experience in Japan honed my observational eye, developed my style, and gave me "cheat sheets" of experiences I could pull out later and incorporate into my novel.
So go out into the world and start describing things.
Find Something That Strikes You
If you're bored, your writing will be bland. If you're enthusiastic, your passion will shine through.
Therefore, chose the subject of your description wisely.
When you describe, start with the thing that strikes you most and why.
If you don't know the reason why it strikes you, keep describing until it comes.
If you finish describing and still don't know, note your emotions and move on.
Description must have a purpose. When you discover the reason the subject captures your interest, you’ll figure out your reason for writing.
Look for Different Angles
When people go on a trip and see an ornate mansion, they first snap a picture of it head-on. As a result, there are thousands of the same head-on pictures of that ornate mansion. This is boring.
Artists create interest by looking for different angles.
Writers create interest by describing unexpected details. A white building is not interesting. But chips of paint flaking off the pillars might be.
This does not mean you cannot start with that same head-on shot of that mansion. Sometimes you need to write down the plain facts. Just don't stop.
Be In the Moment
First savor moment you're in.
If you are not aware or only half-aware of where you are and what you are doing, nothing will go into your head and what little is in your eye flies out as soon as you see something new.
Pause. Focus. Memorize.
If you need to, make a mental checklist of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, both physically and emotionally.
Taking pictures, making recordings, and writing notes can either enhance the experience or detract from it. Do not be so busy flying from photo opportunity to photo opportunity that you forget to see what you're taking pictures of.
Better you observe 5 things well than 50 things poorly.
After observing, make space to jot down your experiences. Do it sooner rather than later.
I, personally, can remember things for about 2 days without memory aids (pictures, recordings, pamphlets) or 2 weeks without them. Afterwards, events blur.
Details First, Narrative Later
Write down everything.
Don't try to sound pretty or you’ll get caught up in words and lose what you're trying to describe.
If you can write down everything and consistently write well at the same time, congratulations. But if you must choose between details and proper syntax, chose details.
Stream of consciousness can be your friend.
Write quick and thoroughly, but also make sure you can read your own writing. If it's nonsense to the world, fine. If it's nonsense to you, you're in trouble.
Re-read your notes soon after you write them.
Re-write your notes, this time focusing on clarity, narrative structure, and logic. If you were to send your description to your mother, would she know what you're talking about? Form complete sentences.
Pick the Quirkiest Details
Most description is superfluous.
Superfluous description weighs down the whole narrative.
Choose only the details that you vitally need or that you find quirky and interesting. Something unexpected. Something which cannot be discerned from a photograph. Something tied to your voice or your feelings.
Get rid of all the rest.
No Cameras Allowed
Go to a museum. Walk around the exhibition, taking in the art. Find 3-5 pieces that spark thought or emotion, pieces you keep coming back to. Study them again. Take in the details. Form a picture in your head, then write it in your notebook.
Take your time.
After leaving the museum, go back to your notes. Can you still form that picture in your head? Organize your notes so that others can see that same image. Tell a story about it, to make others want to see it.
Details. You are expanding your observant eye.
If museums bore you, chose any place where you can sit down and observe for a period of time without embarrassment.
A garden is fine. So is a car show.
The New Restaurant
Not only have you never been to this restaurant before, they're serving food you're unfamiliar with. Maybe it's upscale. Maybe it's ethnic.
Go inside. Notice the layout of the restaurant, the music, the chatter. Sit down. Is your seat comfortable? Order. Take in the sights and the smells of the food. Are you getting hungry? Or is your stomach roiling for a different reason?
How does everything taste? How do the textures feel in your mouth? Does it remind you of something you've eaten before? Or is it completely new?
Sensory Details. The more senses you incorporate, the stronger the reader's experience.
If you have dietary troubles, focus on a different, nonvisual sense. Describe a concert. Go to a perfume store. Find a petting zoo.
You get to be a kid again. Climb to the top of the platform. The wind blows, setting goosebumps to your skin, and the platform wobbles. As you wait in line, you look down and your stomach churns.
Then it's your turn. You push off. Water soaks through your hair into the back of your scalp. The tube twists and turns. You move your body with the curves. Faster, faster. You plummet into the foot deep pool with a splash. Water plunges up your nose. You stand and stumble for your towel, a huge grin on your face. Again!
Not all description is static. As you recreate the experience of sliding down the water slide, really concentration on your verbs. Whenever possible use an active verb (push, wobble) instead of a passive one (is, has). Incorporate action into your description, and the reader will feel like they're playing alongside you.
Any kind of activity is fine, whether going to a dance or jumping out of an airplane. Just make sure it’s something you participate in. Going to a baseball game is fine, but watching one on T.V. is not.
Description is hard work, but it need not be monotonous. If planning exercises stifles you, carry around a pen and notebook and be spontaneous. Incorporate description into your everyday life--in emails to family, records of fun trips, reviews of restaurants. This shouldn't be a chore. Have fun with it.