Specific Details: How to Write Descriptions That Mark You As a Pro
Some might claim that writing powerful descriptions is an art. I would argue it’s a skill you can learn.
Indeed, it’s a skill you’ll need to learn if you want to write the sorts of travel articles editors like to buy.
Those articles are, invariably, descriptive. They leave readers with a concrete idea about what a particular place is like. They may do other things as well: amuse, advise, caution. But it is often the descriptions that really sell an editor on a piece.
Here I’m going to show you one of the most important things you can do to ensure that your descriptions help your articles stand out in an editor’s mind.
**Employ Specific Details
The best articles transport a reader. They paint descriptions so vivid that your reader really feels he’s traveling with you.
You want him to see in his own mind’s eye what you’re seeing.
To make that happen, you have to employ specific details when you describe something. To say it’s “hot” will not do. To say it’s “interesting” will not do.
Let me show you what I mean:
“Affectionately referred to as the Pearl of the Pacific, Mazatlan, Mexico lies situated along the Pacific coast and basks year-round in delightful weather and a laid-back atmosphere. This incomparable port city is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world. Set in a beautiful cove of the Pacific, Mazatlan lies at about the same latitude as Hawaii.”
Now tell me: Do you feel you’ve been to Mazatlan? I know I don’t. I could perhaps pinpoint it on a map… but I couldn’t tell you what it’s like.
This description, by contrast, is quite specific — and infinitely more rewarding for the reader:
“Sniffing through the dank woods of Tuscany, Ugo, a truffle-hunting dog, paused before a pine tree, dug his paws into the crunchy soil and darted off. “Vieni! Vieni!” Luciano Tognazzi shouted. But it was too late. The truffle had become the world’s most expensive doggy treat. Not to worry, said Mr. Tognazzi, 45, a stocky truffle hunter with dark curly hair and a broad nose. He pointed to a dark forest in the distance. “There are plenty of truffles there.” — Lee, Denny. “In a Drowsy Tuscan Village, It’s Truffles That Arouse Interest,” The New York Times. July 10, 2005.
Now, this writer did not simply say “tree,” he said “pine tree.” He did not leave it at “soil,” he said “crunchy soil.” He did not, lazily, call Mr. Tognazzi a “local resident,” he said he was a “truffle hunter with dark curly hair and a broad nose.”
Because of those specifics, we, as readers, are able to build a picture of this place, this experience, for ourselves. This description engages us in a way the one about Mazatlan does not.
**Take Note of the “Small” Things
To write engaging descriptions, you must build them on the small details. They always tell more than broad strokes do.
Of course, to have them at the ready when you’re writing, you’ll have to notice them when you travel.
Train yourself to do it. Stop and take stock of where you are. Count the different varieties of bread for sale. Notice the smell in that passageway. Pay attention to the feel of the fabrics in that shop.
It’s certainly a richer way to travel. And doing so will enrich your writing as well.
Here are two more examples of strong descriptions infused with specifics:
**Two More Strong Descriptions
“There are crumbs on the dashboard. Two bikes are clanging from side to side in the rear of the speeding hatchback as we take the swervy curves of the two-lane D952 northeast from Aix into the hills of Haute Provence.
“The driver (my friend Dennis) continues to accelerate while thoughtfully eating a cookie. In place of a map, the navigator (me) clutches a wine-stained, lustily underlined paperback copy of Waverly Root’s The Food of France. A sweaty, athletic kind of silence prevails in the hatchback. We are “in the zone.” Which is to say we are: still digesting the Michelin two-star dinner of the night before that concluded with very old Armagnac; hung over; eating cookies for breakfast and doggedly focusing on the race to our next meal. It’s early on day eight of our sweeping, self-imposed, hard-driving, light-biking, all-consuming culinary Tour de France, and we are already late for lunch.” — Sachs, Adam. “A Nonstop, Unapologetically High-Calorie Foodie’s Tour de France,” Conde Nast Traveler. April 2005.
“His kitchen is a dimly lit jumble of plastic bowls and battered, mismatched pots and pans, several of which sit atop coal fires that each night glow a bright, hot orange. Chef Lee doesn’t cook with gas or electricity. He says the food tastes better warmed over coals, and for dinner, the experience mimics eating in Hong Kong 100 years ago.
“There’s no sink in the kitchen, either. For water, short garden hoses attached to faucets in the wall will have to do. When the chef’s daughter crouches on the wooden slats above the floor to wash pots in buckets, the soapy water drains out an open trough.” — Maxa, Rudy. “A Taste of Hong Kong,” National Geographic Traveler. May/June 2005.
Each one of those descriptions leaves you not only with a strong image… but wanting more. And that is, of course, what’s most important.
When your descriptions draw your reader in and keep him reading from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, you’ve done your job as a writer… and it will get an editor’s attention.
[Editor’s Note: Jennifer Stevens has spent the balance of the last decade gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean — to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, Mexico and beyond writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment. She is the former editor of International Living and is author of Great Escape Publishing’s Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course.
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.]