This is one of my all-time favorite quickie writing lessons, from the great English teacher Fred Tremallo. It’s a super-simple trick to enhance your writing, and it consists of just two sentences:
- Harry was tall.
- Harry ducked through the doorway.
Take a few minutes to examine the 2 sentences, and jot down at least 5 things you notice… Ready?
Let’s look at the first sentence. It tells you Harry was tall, but that’s pretty much it, right? Some English teachers like to say you should “show, don’t tell” in your writing. Actually, great writing is a skillful blend of both showing and telling. But most of us, when we write, tend to do too much telling and not enough showing.
Clearly, sentence 1 tells. It doesn’t give you a good sense of how tall Harry really was, or suggest why it even matters. Harry was tall. But how tall, and why should we even care?
Sentence 2 shows you Harry was tall without stating it, and without even using the word tall. It gives you a good idea of how tall, too. Glance over at the closest doorway, and visualize how tall Harry must be if he has to duck his head to get under it. Better yet, get up and go stand in the doorway to see how tall Harry was. Sentence 2 is a descriptive sentence that suggests some sense of how and why Harry’s height matters. (For one thing, the poor guy has to duck all the time, or he’ll bump his head; he probably draws a lot of attention too.) As one of my students put it, this sentence “does a better job of making Harry real.”
You want your writing to be real. You want it to matter to somebody. Descriptive writing does that.
Did you notice anything else? Sentence 1 uses the verb to be, while sentence 2 uses an active verb — to duck — which creates a vivid image. Descriptive sentences tend to use exciting active verbs instead of boring, ordinary linking verbs like to be, to seem, to like, and so on.
So is this just “show don’t tell”? Actually, it’s more than that. It’s an example of how descriptive writing is persuasive, specific writing. Instead of stating an idea, it implies the idea, by using a specific image, a specific action, and a specific context that effectively persuades our imaginations to believe it. It gives Harry, and the writing itself, more life on the page.
Want to practice writing descriptively? Try coming up with sentences (or paragraphs) that imply, rather than tell, the following:
- Harry is awesome. (remember, don’t use the word awesome)
- Harry seemed nervous. (don’t use the word nervous)
- Harry loves to cook. (you get the idea!)