Day 2 – Great Description: A Balancing Act


It’s not enough just to offer our reader a description of our ancestor and their surroundings. Description can make or break a story. Let’s begin our journey into description by learning about four elements that comprise excellent description and how to use them in perfect balance.


  1. Be Specific

One of the first lessons we should learn when it comes to writing good description is to be specific. We tend to use generic description when writing and this results in very dry and uninteresting stories.

Let’s look at an example describing your ancestor’s land

The trees sprawled before him across the span of the horizon.

Pretty boring right. I’ve described what the ancestor sees in front of him. But I’ve written it in a very general and generic way.  It’s important to remember general is boring and specific is interesting.

Are these oak and maple trees that are showing their fire-red and burnt- orange colours of fall?  Are they the ancient gnarled cypress trees of Italy or does he smell the fragrant snow-white blossoms of a field of apple trees?

Now, it’s not enough to get specific, but you also have to walk that fine line between when specificity can be overdone.  Specific details when used well, can ground your reader in the setting and bring it to life. If you use description and detail for everything in your scene then nothing stands out.


  1. Use The Five Senses

All great description use the five senses, and we will get into each of the senses in future posts. As you may have noticed above, I didn’t just use sight but also smell.

Again we don’t want to use all five senses to describe a tree, but to find a balance, so we don’t overload the reader in descriptions that are just visual.


  1. Less is More

One of the biggest problems new writers face when they learn to use description is over doing it. Over describing something can take away from the great description you are trying to achieve. Seek out a couple of strong details rather than paragraphs or pages of describing something.  When describing your ancestor you want to choose a number of strong details, remembering of course what details we choose would help to tell us or reveal something about our ancestor.  We can also trust our reader’s imaginations to fill in the rest of the minor details.

A great rule of thumb, give three details and then move on. But make sure those details are specific and awesome.


  1. Show, Don’t Tell

Good details show your ancestor and their surroundings rather than tell us about them.  Showing brings the experience to life on the page.

Here’s an example

Telling: He was old and wrinkled.

Showing: The skin on his face hung like the wax of a burnt candle. Bent over he walked toward me, his eyes focused on each step, his wooden cane holding him up.

When we write our family history stories, we use scene and summary. Scene is showing and summary is telling.  Telling isn’t a bad thing, and there is a place for it in our creative nonfiction stories. However, scene is far more conducive to description and will keep our readers interested.

A great description balances these four key elements of showing, specifics, less is more and senses.  Choose carefully what you will describe and how you plan to describe it.

Need to learn more about scene and summary, check out these articles. 

Building a Story with Scene and Summary

Linking Story through Scene and Summary

Cooking up a Satisfying Scene