I’m still learning this, but I think writing is a trade where everyone is the student and nobody quite the master. There are great students, some are even close, but I don’t think it’s something you can master in a lifetime. Just something you’re constantly learning. Anyway, if you’re just starting out in writing or you’re looking for new inspiration, here are my thoughts on writing descriptions.
Remember that everyone is different
Not everyone is going to like what you put on the page and that includes world building. Some people love long meandering descriptions that take a while to read but really settle you into a place, other people like the bare minimum. No need for anything more. Give me action and a hint of something around us.
There is one description everyone needs in order to enjoy a story, and that is what the characters are doing. Without any kind of sense of what is going on, a reader becomes lost.
Step outside of the box
I most enjoy descriptions I’ve never heard before. My mind often wanders to Scott Westerfield’s incredible start to Uglies: “The sky was the colour of cat vomit.” Firstly because I know that colour, but also because I’d never read a sentence quite like that before. Immediately the image was in my head and bombarded me. Skilfully done. That’s not to say every sentence has to be unusual or out of the ordinary. Sometimes the most used descriptions are good because they encourage speed. In a fight scone you don’t want a reader pausing to mull over a phrase or try to wipe it from their mind just when the action begins otherwise you lose momentum.
Don’t forget the senses
A world without any senses is a box, and not a world. It’s an endless void and nothing else. Don’t forget about touch, smell, and all those other senses! It’s how we experience the world so it makes sense that the most powerful descriptions make use of these things to paint a more vivid picture. A lot of people are good at sound and sight, but I think touch and smell and taste are just as important. My strongest memories are related to those three, and so for me the strongest descriptions spring from them as well.