Writing Tips: Avoiding the Clichés of Description
The coffee shop might seem like the perfect place to work on your novel, short story, or poetry, but it does not always lend inspiration for description. Often, consciously or unconsciously, we write regurgitated description in our books that we have already read elsewhere. That causes the same sentence to reappear in many different books. Another common author-fumble is that we try to describe something we have never actually seen. That can lead to cliché descriptions. For example, if you are describing a fire, the first thing that might come to mind to write is, “the fire crackled in the hearth.” Doesn’t the fire crackle in every novel? The word “crackle” is commonly used to describe a fire. Try choosing uncommon words, and do your best to vividly describe the fire, like you are actually observing one. Is it a hot fire that has been blazing for hours? Or is it a small, sputtering fire that was just started? “The short flames hissed and popped, and steam rose from the damp log.” That sentence is far more interesting and image-evoking. Unless all you want to say is “the fire crackled in the hearth.”
If you’ve never experienced a campfire, or a fire in a fireplace, you might end up with a cliché description of it in your written works. Rather than googling another way to describe a fire, experience it for yourself! Nothing will inspire you more, or give you more ideas, than a raw, firsthand experience. Try it with something you’re trying to describe for your written works, whether it’s an event, food, weather, or an animal. Use caution, be safe, and never try anything dangerous or illegal.
Here are some ideas; I have actually tried some of them!
• In a particular instance, I wanted to paint a picture in the reader’s mind of a deep, thick pine forest. So I went to a friend’s property, which used to be a Christmas tree farm, that had thousands of pines. Pine forests are slightly different than a forest of oaks, maples, or box elder trees, and I discovered that in my experience. It is dense, with thick layers of pine needles carpeting the ground, and very, very quiet. Certain kinds of birds favor pine trees, so you may hear specific bird songs echoing among the cedars, white pines, firs, or blue spruces. Knowing those things specifically about a pine forest opens up a variety of ways to write about what it’s like in the pinewoods.
• If you’re describing a person that is enduring something physically taxing, go for a run! Feel your muscles burning and cramping, and how you’re out of breath. Are you sweating just on your forehead, or also on your arms, back, or even stomach?
•Animals are often easy to describe: brown, furry, etc., but what is often not written about in books is the unpredictableness of an animal’s movements. Deer rarely walk a full 100 yards without stopping. They take a few steps, glance around, then trot for another 20 feet, then stop. Deer are very wary of their surroundings. Find a place to observe wild deer in their natural habitat, and write down what you see. Write anything, whether it’s just individual words, or a whole sentence. Keep in mind, animals are elusive and hard to find sometimes, so don’t get discouraged on the first try!
• Something I’ve seen in many books are descriptions of marketplaces or the downtown hubbub of a city. It’s hard not to become cliché in the process of writing about it, so try different angles, perspectives, or subjects, just like a photographer would. A photographer won’t just always stand in the doorway of a store and take a photo of the street. Instead, they might get down on the sidewalk and snap a picture of a pigeon eating pretzel crumbs, with crowds of people milling about in the background.
• Weather is famous for falling into a cliché pose. Not all raindrops are going to “fall” from the sky. Rain might come hurtling down in sheets, or it might be a light mist. Are they cold, sharp, stinging pellets of icy rain? Or is it a warm rain? There are many, many ways to say, “it rained.” And the sun does not always come out after it rains. Go outside for a walk the next time it rains, and don’t be afraid to get wet! Turn your face up so you know what it feels like. Or, if riding a winter-themed work, go out during a snowstorm! Notice if the snowflakes make noise when they fall on the ground.
A challenge for describing weather! When putting together your sentences in your work, don’t name what you are describing. Don’t write the word, “rain”. In other words, describe it, but don’t say it. Write about how the clouds are growing dark, then how droplets of water fall from the sky and hit the pavement, and then comes the downpour. Your reader will know what you are describing, without you ever saying the word, “rain”.
• If you’re describing an event, like a horse race, focus on the feeling. Are the crowds excited, murmuring amongst themselves? Maybe it’s a lazy, hot day, and the crowds are quieter, sitting in the shade and fanning themselves. What does the main character feel at the race? Is he nervous, because he just bet a large sum on a horse? Or is he just relaxing because his uncle is working at the ticket booth?
Whatever you choose to do, always remember that you don’t have to go far to experience something for your project. If you are writing about a northern atmosphere, like Alaska, you may not have the resources to travel there. So get as close as you can, without the travel. Look up photos, watch videos of the tundra, or documentaries. It’s not ideal, but it’s what you have to do sometimes. You want the reader to “feel” the cold, and “hear” the wind. It will improve your book, poetry, or whatever kind of writing you want to do!
By Jasmine Bennett
Photo Credit: Camille Guillen @camilles_lens (Instagram)
Sign up to receive notifications of new posts, as well as our monthly newsletter!