A picture can tell a thousand words, and descriptive writing can paint a thousand pictures.
Descriptive writing is a very powerful technique because the pictures you can draw with it can cut more deeply into the emotional core of your readers than if you just used informational words alone.
Plus, you can weave those pictures into stories that engage your readers even more deeply.
It’s no coincidence that works of fiction, which rely heavily on descriptive writing and storytelling, grab such a disproportionate chunk of our attention and our dollars.
Think that just two fiction writers alone have moved as many books as earth’s population – William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie – with a combined 7 billion copies of their works printed to date!
But descriptive writing isn’t just confined to the world of fiction. In fact, the best nonfiction books make abundant use of this writing technique as well.
How Does Descriptive Writing Work?
The job of descriptive writing is to emulate our senses and feelings indirectly through the use of the written word.
We perceive the world around us through images, sounds, sensations, smells and taste. So, by using words that trigger these senses, writers can create a pathway to our emotions by stimulating the same nerve centers in our brain.
That’s why when we read a great novel or watch a great movie we feel transported to the world being depicted by it, and even after we finish the book or after we walk out of the movie our brains keep “lingering” in those worlds for some time, until reality sets in and our actual senses begin to take over again.
Can Descriptive Writing be Effective in the Nonfiction Genre?
Nonfiction in general, and problem-solving nonfiction in particular, tends to be very systematic – “You have a problem and I will solve it if you follow exactly these steps.”
The problem with this approach is that it can become too predictable and too intellectual (read: boring and uninspiring, from the reader’s standpoint).
You’ve now added a layer of filtering between your readers’ minds (where information is interpreted and analyzed) and their emotions (where actions originate).
And here lies the conundrum: you need to communicate your “system” to the reader so you can help them, but they won’t take the action required to change unless you can connect directly with their emotional core.
The solution? Descriptive writing and storytelling.
Lists of Descriptive Words Used in Nonfiction (with Examples)
The best way to learn how to master descriptive writing is to read a lot of stories, from both the fiction as well as the nonfiction worlds.
Find 3-5 critically acclaimed books from both genres that are in a subject of interest to you, read them cover to cover and then read them again to identify how they’ve used descriptive writing to connect with your senses.
Then practice, practice, practice! Practice writing stories that relate to your book’s content using descriptive language – for example, stories that illustrate the emotional journey that a client went through as they journeyed from problem to solution.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts here. You just have to write a lot of stories before you begin to get the hang of it. The closest thing to a shortcut is this: the more great books you read, the better your chances of getting good at it.
It’s also useful to have a good selection of descriptive words to draw from. To help you out, I’ve compiled and categorized a number of choice adjectives below that you can draw from when crafting your stories.
Adjectives that Describe Sound:
Adjectives that Describe Taste:
Adjectives that Describe Touch:
Adjectives that Describe Color:
Adjectives that Describe Size:
Adjectives that Describe Shapes:
Adjectives that Describe Terrain:
Adjectives that Describe Places:
Adjectives that Describe Quantities:
Adjectives that Describe Time:
Adjectives that Describe Feelings:
Adjectives that Describe People:
Now, it’s time to put rubber to the road. Write 5-7 stories that will enhance your content delivery guided by the inspiration from the books you’ve read as homework and using the above descriptive word categories for reference.
Then, have them read by people you trust for feedback. What you’re looking for is first impressions that can relate back to you whether your pictures and stories were able to connect with your readers’ senses and engage their emotions.
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.