The Wrong Words… and the Right Ones

“The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” – Samuel Johnson

Descriptions that editors and clients like – the ones they pay for – are those that paint pictures so vivid, readers see and feel and taste them. And this is true whether you’re talking about travel writing, copywriting, romance writing, or any type of writing for that matter.

How do you make sure your descriptions are vivid and alive?

The short answer is: “Show, don’t tell” – a maxim that you’ll come across in nearly every book on good writing. But what, exactly, does that mean? How do you, in fact, “show” and not “tell” in your writing?

It’s not that easy … but don’t despair. I’ll let you in on a secret that will help immensely.

First, let me back up …

What Is “Show, Don’t Tell”?

“Show, don’t tell” means don’t announce directly what some thing or place is like and how it should make a person feel. Instead, describe it so richly that your reader experiences it for himself.

Let your reader draw his own conclusions. Don’t lay them out for him.

Say you’re writing about a back-of-beyond hotel on some barely charted island in the Mozambique Channel. You could say it’s remote. You could say it’s peaceful. But a more skillful writer would describe it so the reader would find himself thinking, “Boy, this sounds like the most remote, peaceful place on Earth!”

How can you “show” remote? Tell him about how you got there – the four-hour ride into dense bush in the canvas-topped back of a 1979 Peugeot pick-up truck … with three chickens, four shrouded women, and an infant for company.

How do you “show” peaceful? Perhaps describe the night – how the only sounds you hear are the rustling of lemurs in the trees, the squeaks of fruit bats, the sloshing of the Indian Ocean as it slides between jagged lava rocks that frame the sandy cove where this hotel sits.

I know … it’s one thing to read it. It’s another altogether to write it. But take the following advice seriously, and you’ll improve every description you ever write.

The Big Secret: Avoid “Filler” Words That Don’t Say Anything … or That Say Something to One Person and Something Else to Another.

Sometimes it’s hard to find that standout detail that really characterizes a woman’s dress. So you say it’s “fashionable.”

You ring the bell in a rural French town, and a shopkeeper comes down from his upstairs apartment to open his antique store. You wander through, even buy a little something. Maybe silver ice-cube tongs. In your story, you say the shop is “quaint.”

Travel writing (all writing, for that matter) is full of words like “fashionable” and “quaint” that don’t say anything. Pretty, lovely, charming, upscale, idyllic, cozy, colorful, fancy, beautiful – when you use words like these, you’re just filling space. You’re taking the easy way out – and editors know it.

As William Zinsser put it: “One man’s ‘romantic’ sunrise is another man’s hangover.”

Consider this description with too many “filler” words:

“We’re greeted on arrival by hot, tropical weather. A blessing. There’s the beautiful bay, Bahia de Zihuatanejo, that we saw in the pictures. Our palapa is at the edge of an idyllic jungle.”

“Beautiful bay” – one reader conjures up Cape Cod in his mind, and another sees a Caribbean island.

“Idyllic jungle” – one reader thinks of a tamed landscape with lighted, stone walkways and strategically planted frangipani, while another sees a dense expanse of vines and trees, seemingly impenetrable.

Choose Specific Details. Lead Your Reader to Draw His Own Conclusions.

Now, here’s a description rich in specifics that make it genuinely compelling. Ever since I first read it, I’ve had an itch to see Oslo in winter. And at least one editor liked it – because this appeared in The New York Times:

“There were little white candles flickering everywhere in Oslo – even in the breakfast room of the hotel, where we guests all lingered over our lavish Scandinavian smorgasbord.

“According to our preferences, we fortified ourselves with three kinds of herring, with soft-boiled eggs or shrimp salad, with mackerel in tomato sauce or muesli. We refilled our plates and sipped our tea and coffee, reluctant to go out into the winter cold. Little white candles in silver-stemmed goblets, in smoked-glass boxes, in pewter saucers, were burning on every table in every cafe and restaurant, like a promise to hold onto the light right through the winter darkness.”

The writer doesn’t tell us that guests have a wide choice of breakfast foods. He doesn’t tell us that the hotel’s breakfast room is cozy. He doesn’t tell us Oslo in winter is surprisingly enticing. He provides us with the specifics and lets us draw those conclusions from them.

Make the place or object or scene you’re describing come alive for your reader. You want him to join you there. It takes energy and effort. But if you’re careful to shun “filler” words in favor of specific details, you’ll be way ahead of the pack.

And editors will notice.

[Ed. Note: Jen Stevens, the former editor of International Living and a contributing editor there today, is the author of AWAI’s The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Course. Learn more about it – and get a special, free report for ETR readers titled How to Get a First Class Seat – for Less – on Most Every Flight You Take.]