It feels like you’ve been staring at the computer screen for hours as you struggle to rewrite several paragraphs. You’re trying to capture in words the images in your head, but the sentences on the page sound lifeless and dull.
Maybe you’re writing a blog post about a recent trip you took, and you want your readers to hear the cacophony of the city’s traffic and see the neon signs drenching the street with color.
Or maybe you’re writing a sales page, and you want your readers to be able to envision themselves using your product. You want them to feel as if they’re already holding the product in their hands and can see how it will make their lives so much easier.
The ability to describe something vividly is an essential skill for every writer to master, no matter whether you’re a blogger, novelist, or copywriter. Vivid descriptions transform your paragraphs from vague and boring to engrossing and memorable.
Of course, like any skill, it’s one that takes time and practice to master. But there are ways to speed up that process and instantly transform your writing.
One of the best ways to do that is to study the descriptions of expert writers and steal their techniques.
In today’s post, we’re going to do just that.
Recently, while unpacking a box of books I’d brought with me when I moved to North Carolina, I found one of my treasures: my copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I gave away many of my books, but Gatsby was one I couldn’t part with.
Fitzgerald’s writing has always enchanted me. Whenever I need a bit of inspiration, I love to turn to a page at random and study how Fitzgerald makes the New York of the 1920s come alive.
When Fitzgerald describes one of Gatsby’s parties, you feel like you are weaving in and out of the crowds and can almost hear the jazz music spilling across the gardens.
I’m sure Fitzgerald never tried to tell a story to his friends, and then gave up with a shrug, saying, “I guess you had to be there.”
Let’s look at three simple techniques Fitzgerald uses to bring his writing to life and how we can use them in our writing too.
And an important note! Before Fitzgerald became a novelist, he worked as a copywriter, creating slogans for billboards and signs in streetcars. So don’t think that these techniques are only for fiction writers. Any writer can use them.
1. Add layers to your descriptions with metaphors and similes
Metaphors and similes are the first tool in Fitzgerald’s paintbox for splashing his descriptions with color.
If you already use metaphors and similes in your writing, that’s fantastic. We’ll look at some creative ways to make similes and metaphors even more powerful in this section.
If you don’t use metaphors and similes, here’s a quick explanation of what they are.
A metaphor or simile helps you take your description to another level by comparing two unlike things to each other as if they were alike. The only difference between them is that similes use the words “like” or “as” (the wind sounded like a moan) and metaphors do not (the wind moaned).
Okay, let’s look at how Fitzgerald uses similes and metaphors to enhance the images in his writing.
Here’s one example:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.
First, these similes help us better visualize the scene. Here’s what it would sound like without them: “The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were seated. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering.”
A bit boring, right? Without the similes, there isn’t really anything to make that scene stand out.
Second, they help set a mood for the paragraph. While Fitzgerald isn’t writing a fantasy novel, by using similes about balloons and flying women, he’s able to give this scene an otherworldly feel. In a way, they’re like mini-stories within a story.
Let’s look at the metaphor Fitzgerald uses in the last line of the book to see how these mini-stories can add depth to our own writing:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
This is one of the most quoted lines from The Great Gatsby, and for good reason. Instead of just writing something like, “We try to move forward, but keep returning to the past”, Fitzgerald elevates this simple idea by using the imagery of boats.
Yes, the reader might say, that’s how I feel too. I’m trying to escape the past but feel like I’m rowing against the current.
Wrapped in a metaphor, the idea is no longer vague, but tangible.
So how can we effectively use metaphors and similes in our own writing?
Here are several tips:
First, you can use a simile to deepen your descriptions (as Fitzgerald does) or to better explain a complex concept or idea.
For example: “In order to perform this exercise, lie on your stomach, place your hands on the floor under your shoulders, and lift your chest off the floor as if you were a cobra.”
(Read my article here for more tips on how to explain complex ideas with similes and stories.)
Second, you can use similes and metaphors to weave your personality into your writing.
For example, say you love to play the piano, and you’re writing an article about blogging. You might write something like,
I love to play piano, and I soon realized that blogging and playing the piano are alike in a lot of ways. Just like you need to practice the piano every day if you want to improve your skills, you need to write consistently on your blog in order become a better blogger.
Third, you can use a simile or metaphor to evoke a specific feeling in your readers.
Blue Apron does that on their homepage by comparing their recipes to creating magic. This imagery makes us think that cooking Blue Apron’s recipes must be easy and the food will taste delicious.
CitiBike also uses a simple but clever metaphor on their website:
It is important to think of metaphors and similes like salt and pepper, however. A little sprinkle, and they’ll season your writing. But too many and you’re writing will be way too salty or way too spicy. A simile or metaphor in every sentence or paragraph will slow down the writing and detract from the specialness of each one. (Did you notice the simile I used in this paragraph?)
Fitzgerald uses metaphors and similes sparingly throughout the book, but when he does use them, they make you sit up and take notice.
2. Make descriptions delight the five senses with sensory words
Sensory words are the next tool that Fitzgerald employs to help readers become immersed in his story.
Sometimes sensory words sparkle, sometimes they clang, other times they’re bristly. Sometimes they’re bitter, other times delicious. Sometimes they have a fragrant aroma.
In short, sensory words are the descriptive words that apply to the five senses:
- Words related to sight or appearance (these can also include words related to motion) — gleaming, tarnished, shadowy, sparkling, dancing
- Words related to touch — velvety, icy, sharp, blunt
- Words related to taste — bitter, zesty, refreshing
- Words related to scent — musty, fragrant, sweet
- Words related to sound — roar, sizzle, murmur
See a list of more sensory words here.
Sensory words help you engage your readers’ five senses. They make your readers touch, taste, smell, hear, and see your descriptions.
Here are two sentences from The Great Gatsby that are filled with sensory words (I’ve highlighted several):
The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher…The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath–already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.
Of course, in a work of fiction that type of description is captivating. But in a blog post or on another page of your website, you would probably want to be a little less poetic. And, yet, you can still use sensory words effectively.
Look at how Bose uses sensory words in a product description for their headphones:
How many did you spot? Sound: noise-masking, soothing, snoring, loud. Touch: comfortable. Sight & Appearance: tiny, wireless…
One simple way to add sensory words to your paragraphs is to search for synonyms for an adjective or verb you’ve already written.
3. Zoom-in on your descriptions with a list of details
Fitzgerald’s third technique is quite simple. I call it “the detailed list”.
Take this paragraph as an example:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher–shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.
Fitzgerald could have ended the sentence at “he took a pile of shirts and began throwing them,” but he wanted us to be able to visualize the scene, to see the types of shirts that Gatsby wore.
So he zooms-in on them. He lists all of the different types of shirts.
Here’s another sentence that burst with a detailed list:
By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived–no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums.
Again, Fitzgerald uses the detailed list in order to create a specific image in our head. This wasn’t just any orchestra — it was lavish.
Detailed lists can be used in any kind of writing. On sales pages, they’re often used to emphasize a product’s many features. Here’s an example from the sales page for the Kindle Paperwhite:
Of course, if you crammed every one of your sentences with a list of details, your reader would become exhausted.
But just as you can sprinkle metaphors and similes like salt and pepper, you can use detailed lists when you’re struggling to make a description more vibrant or when you want to make sure that your readers are picturing the correct image in their heads.
While Fitzgerald was a masterful writer, these three techniques are simple and straightforward. You can start using them right away to add zest to your descriptions.
When you transform bland paragraphs, you’re better able to hold the attention of your readers. And thus you’re more effective at sharing your message with the world.
Do you have a favorite writer whose descriptions you love? Let me know in the comments.
And how will you use these three techniques in your writing? Why not try including one or all three in your next blog post or on a page of your website? If you do, leave a link to it in the comments. I’d love to see what you come up with.
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