The descriptions that editors like — the ones they pay for — are those that paint pictures so vivid, readers see and feel and taste right along with the writer.
How do you make sure your descriptions do that?
The short answer is: “Show don’t tell” — a maxim of good writing you’ll come across in nearly any book devoted to the subject.
But what, exactly, does it mean? How do you, in fact “show” and not “tell” in your own writing?
Turns out, it’s not that easy. Don’t despair: In a moment, I’ll let you in on a secret that will help immensely.
First, though, let me back up…
*** WHAT, EXACTLY, IS “SHOW DON’T TELL?”
“Show don’t tell” means that you shouldn’t just announce directly what a place is like and how it makes visitors feel. Instead, you should describe it in such a rich way that your reader experiences it for himself…
In other words, lead your reader to draw his own conclusions about a place. Don’t lay them out for him.
For example: Say you’re writing about a back-of-beyond hotel on some barely charted island in the Mozambique Channel. You could say it’s remote. And you could say it’s peaceful.
But a more skillful writer would, instead, describe the place in such a way that the reader would find himself thinking, “Boy, this sounds like the most remote, peaceful place on Earth.”
So, how can you “show” your reader remote? Well, tell him about how you get there — the four-hour ride into dense bush in the canvas-topped back of a 1979 Peugeot pick-up truck with three chickens, four shrouded women, and an infant for company.
And how do you “show” peaceful? Perhaps describe the night — how the only sounds you hear are the rustling of lemurs in the trees above, the squeaks of the fruit bats, the sloshing of the Indian Ocean as it slides between the jagged lava rocks that frame the sandy cove where this hotel sits.
I know… it’s one thing to read it, it’s another altogether to do it yourself. But take the following advice seriously, and you will improve every description you write:
*** THE BIG SECRET: AVOID “FILLER” WORDS (OFTEN ADJECTIVES) THAT DON’T REALLY SAY ANYTHING… OR SAY SOMETHING TO ONE PERSON AND SOMETHING ELSE TO ANOTHER.
Sometimes it’s hard to find that stand-out detail that really characterizes a woman’s dress. So you just say it’s “fashionable.”
You ring the bell in a rural French town, and a shopkeeper comes down from his upstairs apartment to open his antique store. You wander through, even buy a little something — silver ice cube tongs. In your story, the shop is “quaint.”
Travel writing is full of words like “fashionable” and “quaint” that don’t really say anything: pretty, lovely, charming, upscale, idyllic, cozy, colorful, fancy, beautiful…
When you use words like those, you’re just filling space. You’re taking the easy way out — and editors know it.
Sometimes, to be fair, those filler words do say something — it’s just that what they say to you as a writer might not be at all what they say to your reader.
As William Zinsser put it: “One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.”
Consider this description, which relies on too many “filler” words:
“We’re greeted on arrival by hot, tropical weather. A blessing. There’s the beautiful bay, Bahia de Zihuatanejo, that we saw in the pictures. Our palapa is at the edge of an idyllic jungle.”
“Beautiful bay” — one reader conjures up Cape Cod in his mind, another sees a Caribbean island.
“Idyllic jungle” — one reader thinks of a tamed landscape with lighted, stone walkways and strategically planted frangipani, another sees a dense expanse of vines and trees, seemingly impenetrable.
*** CHOOSE, INSTEAD, SPECIFIC DETAILS. LEAD YOUR READER TO DRAW HIS OWN CONCLUSIONS FROM THEM.
Here, by contrast, is a description rich in specifics, which make it genuinely compelling. Ever since I first read this, I’ve had an itch to see Oslo in winter. And at least one editor liked it — this appeared in the “New York Times”:
“There were little white candles flickering everywhere in Oslo – even in the breakfast room of the hotel, where we guests all lingered over our lavish Scandinavian smorgasbord. According to our preferences, we fortified ourselves with three kinds of herring, with soft-boiled eggs or shrimp salad, with mackerel in tomato sauce or muesli. We refilled our plates and sipped our tea and coffee, reluctant to go out into the winter cold. Little white candles in silver-stemmed goblets, in smoked-glass boxes, in pewter saucers were burning on every table in every café and restaurant, like a promise to hold onto the light right through the winter darkness.”
The writer doesn’t tell us that guests have a wide choice of breakfast foods. He doesn’t tell us it’s cozy. He doesn’t tell us Oslo in winter is surprisingly enticing. He provides us the specifics and lets us draw those conclusions from them.
You want your descriptions to make the places your describing come alive for your reader. You want him to join you there. It takes energy and effort. But if you’re careful to shun “filler” words in favor of specific details, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. And editors will notice that, too.
[Jen Stevens has spent the balance of the last eight years gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean — to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, and beyond reporting on and writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment. She is the former editor of International Living and Island Properties Report, and she was a writer and editor for several years at Trade & Culture magazine. Jen is the principal architect and writer of The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course, published by the American Writers & Artists Institute.]
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]