Fun fact: When most people say they want to improve their descriptive writing, they actually mean they want to improve their use of imagery. There is a small, but important, distinction between descriptive writing and writing that uses imagery. New writers tend to be the ones who struggle to make this distinction, and their writing suffers for it. But it’s a super-easy fix. No worries.
To help us improve the vividness of our writing, we need to first understand why imagery is better than descriptive writing. Descriptive writing is that entire essay we wrote for our English teacher in our sophomore year of high school. It’s over-the-top and description is. In. Every. Single. Sentence. It’s a checkbox that gets ticked on a rubric. Literally, it’s called “The Descriptive Essay” and current high school students across America need to write one descriptive essay to keep up with nationwide education standards and prove their competency in English writing.
Imagery is more concise. Imagery is that sentence from your favorite book that you underline and memorize and print out on a t-shirt. It’s that single beautiful line that can bring tears to your eyes and give you that tight-achy feeling in your chest every time you read it (even though it’s not a sad quote).
A literary device that uses vivid language to create a strong mental image for readers. It uses descriptive words that appeal to the senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, and memory*).**Memory isn’t technically one of the senses, but, as far as writing goes, playing to your characters’ and your readers’ memories adds a layer of depth to your writing.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with descriptive writing. You need to master descriptive writing before you can master imagery. That’s why students across the United States need to write the Descriptive Essay. It’s important. When I was in school, it seems like my teachers told me that learning this type of writing (or any kind of writing you need to do in school) was important, but I was never told why. So here’s one “why” for descriptive writing:
You need to know descriptive writing so that you can learn imagery. There are countless additional reasons why, but for our purposes right now: You + Descriptive Writing = Imagery. It’s like a natural-progression-type-of-thing. The use of imagery develops out of an ability to write descriptively.
That said, here’s a worksheet with three writing exercises I used with my students to help them learn descriptive writing and imagery. These three exercises gave them a strong foundation in descriptive writing so that they could more easily master imagery. Click the button below to download your free copy of the worksheet.
The difference between descriptive writing and imagery
Having a hard time telling the difference between descriptive writing and imagery? It’s okay. I’m here to help!
The biggest difference is that, while imagery uses description, it’s more powerful that descriptive writing. I know that those words sound all twisty-wonky, but hear me out. Descriptive writing is an entire essay/scene/chapter that describes something in maddening detail. Imagery is sometimes less than three words. But, man. Do those words make you feel something.
Descriptive writing is your painfully honest friend
Descriptive writing is your friend who you count on to tell you how it is. They don’t mince words or worry about sounding pretty and poetic. Descriptive writing is like the friend who tells us pink is ~not~ our color. And we don’t get angry at our friend because sometimes we need to hear things straight-up and all honest-like.
Descriptive writing doesn’t really make you feel or imagine anything. It straight-up tells you what’s there. It’s me describing the exact size, shape, color, and placement of the sofa in my living room. Imagery is a short burst of words that mention the worn and cracked-leather love seat, AND THEN WE MOVE ON WITH THE STORY. Because, realistically, who wants to read pages and pages describing a couch? 😴 No one. Imagery is short and sweet and to-the-point-now-let’s-move-on.
Imagery is your friend who has mastered the art of bailing
Imagery shows up fashionably late to every party. They are that friend who embraces the Jim Halpert Rules to Leaving Parties Early–particularly the parts about making a strong impression and dropping a line that people remember. They say a poetic or profound thing and then they bail without you knowing.
Imagery is all about bursts of description that occur every few pages or so. Try not to use it constantly. It’s like when you compliment your cat. At first he purrs and blinks at you and smiles in that mysterious way that cats smile. So, you keep complimenting him. After a while, he get’s this look on his face, like he’s bored or wants you to tell him moooore awesome things about him. You start to feel cheap. The original compliment lost its power because you constantly told your cat he was a handsome so-and-so.
Imagery is like that. Use it sparingly to give it more power. If you overload your reader with description after description, they can’t use their imagination. Good imagery lets readers use their imagination. It isn’t afraid that they’ll get the words wrong or that the picture in their heads won’t look like how you want it to.
An example: I started reading Harry Potter in third grade. To. This. Day. Do you know what Hogwarts looks like in my head? My elementary/middle school. Even after years of re-reading the books until the spines broke and binging the movies on an endless loop, The Great Hall looks like my elementary school cafeteria in my head. The point: you can’t control what your readers see in their heads—so don’t try too hard. The trick is to provide enough detail to get a reaction from their imagination.
We don’t want to be controlling. What makes stories last in readers’ minds is how well you let them imagine the world you build and the characters you create. THEY CANNOT IMAGINE IF YOU TELL THEM EVERYTHING. I know it’s scary to let go sometimes and give others that power. Especially because the words are in your head and you know the story should be just so. But if you want your reader to remember, you need to give them the freedom and personal space to build and visualize your words without frog-marching them along.
Important tips & advice to remember when writing
Don’t waste time trying to perfect imagery in your first draft. Drafts are where you make mistakes. They are allowed to suck. They are supposed to suck. That’s kind of the point of a draft–you get it all out. Finish your writing and say what you need to. THEN, go back and add imagery in. It’s much easier to add imagery (or any literary device) in writing that’s completed. It’s harder to pull these things out of thin air.
Use active verbs, specific nouns, and sensory adjectives (words that appeal to a reader’s sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing, seeing, and memories). AVOID flowery language–your readers don’t care how big your vocabulary is. They just want a good, well-written story. So, ditch that thesaurus, and replace all your uses of the word “cognizant” with “aware” or “knowledgeable.”
Again, here’s a free worksheet that will help you improve the imagery in your writing. Download your copy today, and give power to your descriptive writing.
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