Have you written your latest post and thought it sounds like a dozen other posts you’ve seen on the same subject? Well, you aren’t alone. Everyone who writes has the same worries—especially those of us who are writers by trade. So how do you make sure your message stands out from everyone else?
Descriptive language is probably the easiest and the best way of making sure your message, brand, and voice are unique and recognizable.
Using descriptive language means being more observant of the world around you and the language you speak. It goes beyond just improving your vocabulary and using more adjectives. Anyone can learn new words, but being descriptive also involves being able to tie together your senses, emotions, and your new vocabulary.
And that takes a little practice.
1. Write detailed observations from real life.
I went to a book signing for Kate Morton in 2015, if I recall correctly. Her novels are must-reads for me, and I’ve always admired how much descriptive detail she includes in her stories. At the book signing, someone asked her how she got that level of detail.
Her answer? She had “buckets” of details.
She explained most of the finer details she included were things she had observed in real life and had written down and saved away for a book at some point. Now, this seems like the most sensible advice in the world, doesn’t it?
When I started doing the same thing, it revolutionized the way I wrote and reignited my passion for storytelling. Because details from real life are often better than anything you can make up. Imagination is a wonderful thing, but it still needs something to work upon.
All those ten-minute freewrites that helped form my novel? They started with observations of my surroundings. Detailed observations. Sometimes, I’d even make up entire storylines just based on one observation.
And it was fun. I’m an introvert. An extreme introvert in some respects. I don’t enjoy going out if I don’t have to, and I like as little in-person interaction as possible. Sometimes, I don’t even like interacting on the internet.
But this practice helped turn what would normally be a burden into a game of sorts. Also, it is a good way of venting some of your anxieties and frustrations without having to be an ogre.
How to Practice Writing Observations
There are many ways to practice this. You can use this to decompress after a tense meeting with teammates, after dealing with a difficult customer, or after accomplishing that big goal you set and nailed. Focus on the emotions of the moment and how the people involved interacted with one another.
Step 1: Get out and about.
Are you a remote worker? Go out. Yes, you must leave the house for this one. Sorry! If you’re in an office environment, stay put. You have a wealth of material, even if the office is empty.
Step 2: : Pick a location where you have a good chance of observing people.
FACE THE ROOM if you can. You must be able to watch and observe people. Take in the entire scene—and that includes the scenery itself.
That can be your favorite café, breakfast spot, or even a bench at a busy shopping center. Coffee shops are a good place to start. Heck, go to Starbucks in Target and you’ll have the full spectrum of people to observe. Workers included. Remember, you are people watching.
Step 3: Start observing. Take in EVERYTHING.
Is it hot today? Cold? What time of year is it? Are there lots of school-age kids around? College kids? Couples?
Notice how they interact with each other, how they dress, how they walk, how they talk to other people, and how they carry themselves. What you’re looking for are incidents, comments, and yes, even appearances that stand out and interest you. You don’t need to know the context or anyone’s names. Just be a passive observer.
Soak it all in, but especially soak up the details and the emotions those details convey. The way someone puts down their menu or how they seldom put down their phone. The way they sit in their seat. Even the way they order or how they occupy themselves standing in line.
STEP 4: START WRITING!
Don’t just sit there and sip your coffee. Get to work!
What were the details that struck you the most? Did they have a good sense of style or were they dressed in little more than pajamas?
You don’t need to know anything about them personally. That’s not the point of this exercise. The point is to watch their behavior, notice their appearance, and get down all those details as much as you can. If you do this enough, you may even spot patterns of behavior.
Siblings interact differently, particularly if they’re in separate generations. Lovers act differently than married couples. Children act differently around parents than they do other adults. And everyone acts differently depending on the weather and where they’re from.
A Floridian, for example, will wear shorts and flip-flops almost year-round. Broken up by the hoodie worn during what passes for cold weather in Florida. And parents may have a harder time convincing their kids that yes, it is too cold to wear shorts.
Those are the details that help you sell your product or service or give you a fuller character description in your next novel.
2. Buy an old-fashioned dictionary and thesaurus. No, I’m not crazy!
Ok, hear me out on this one. Yes, I know you can look up whatever word you may wish on Google. For free. But you only see the definition of that specific word and not any of the surrounding words. This is a disadvantage because you don’t get the chance to associate the word you’re looking up with related words.
Word association is a classic creative exercise that still comes highly recommended.
My favorite thought leader on LinkedIn is Drew Boyd. There’s a lot of sage, down-to-earth wisdom in his broadcasts that cuts through the creative clutter on social media. One of his podcast episodes “A Quick and Effective Technique for Expressing Yourself Creatively” details an exercise I used when I was in middle school and high school.
Drew suggests drawing up three lists of words: two lists of adjectives, one list of nouns. The idea is to force yourself to combine words from each category in new ways. This exercise is astoundingly effective, particularly as it forces you to come to terms with words you already know and may even force you to seek new words.
So, what if you run out of words to use in a list? What if you are trying to expand your vocabulary? Thumbing through the dictionary or thesaurus, you can pick up on words that aren’t necessarily going pop up in an internet search and you get to work on making connections of your own. You may even find different avenues to explore and words you didn’t know existed.
Now, while this may seem a pointless exercise—and a dull one at that — you are subtly training your mind to make connections between different concepts as you read. You can’t do that by scrolling through a page of Google results. You can still use Google for quick reference. There’s nothing wrong with that. But take some time and go over an old-school dictionary occasionally.
It’s more informative than you may think.
Take defenestrate. You’d never know it existed unless you were interested in 1600s European history or were on Facebook back in the late 00s when SuperPoke was a thing. Defenestrate was one option. My roommate and I had enormous fun “defenestrating” one another on Facebook. It’s also used in connection to a series of events that happened in Prague in 1618. Look it up, it’s one of those juicy historical tidbits they don’t teach you in school.
And it set off one of the first major continental wars in Europe prior to Napoleon.
3. Increase your reading level.
According to Forbes, most adults now read below a 6th grade level. Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong with that, despite what Forbes may say. This is not a suggestion to make you feel stupid or inferior. I am suggesting it because it will help your writing.
It doesn’t mean that you need to write to a higher reading level, either. Sometimes being aware of how many ways you can describe the world helps you discover new ways of expressing yourself to your audience, be that a prospective customer, employee, reader, or even if you’re trying to express yourself for your own personal growth.
The higher the reading level, the more detail you will find in a piece of reading material. If you try to read a novel from 1820, for instance, you are going to find a vastly different writing style than you would in either 1920 or 2020. One thing you will find is the language is much more descriptive. There are more scenic descriptions, for instance.
In 1820, writers wanted their readers to see foreign lands from the safety and comfort of their country houses. It’s part of the reason novels like The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables are such intimidatingly long novels—Dumas and Hugo incorporated elements of the travel novel in their writing. And the travel novel, much like the Gothic novel, was mostly about scenery.
Even in Frankenstein, you’ll find a lot of scenic description. Contrast that to today where modern writers describe scenery in the dialogue instead of the narrative. But most of these novels are above the average 8th grade reading level in today’s terms. Which means you either miss out or you work on your comprehension level.
More on this next week.
Where will you begin?
Whether you begin with being more observant of life around you or with word association, you need to begin somewhere. Take that coffee break at your favorite local shop. Go get you that old-school dictionary and thesaurus and start making word associations. Sign up for a word of the day from Dictionary.com or another site and challenge yourself to read something more challenging.
You, your mind, and your craft as a writer or as a leader are worth the investment.
So, what are you going to try out today? Let me know in the comment section below or find me on social media and share what you’ve written.
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