Fill your words with color.
Use descriptive English to make your writing more powerful and vibrant.
Make the reader say, “I feel like I’m right there!”
It’s not as hard as you might think. You can tell better stories and write better essays simply by using English descriptive writing tricks instead of basic vocabulary words.
Your essays, letters, emails and other English writing will transform from black-and-white to rainbow in no time.
Why Is Descriptive Writing Important?
Being able to write descriptively means bringing an image or idea to life using the power of words. This is a skill that’ll help you in all kinds of situations, from writing school essays, to pitching (suggesting) ideas at work, to sharing stories with your friends.
When you’re able to communicate descriptively, your personality begins to shine through in how you talk and write.
Descriptive techniques also allow you to be creative and experimental with how you learn English. Practicing creative writing exercises is a fun way to improve your grammar and vocabulary without even realizing you’re doing it. You’ll also be able to appreciate all kinds of fictional texts and impress your friends with your knowledge of English literature.
3 Secret Ingredients for Deliciously Descriptive English Writing
For each of the English descriptive writing techniques below, we’ll also give you some creative exercises to practice using them right away. Along with these exercises, be sure to use the real English videos on FluentU to continue building your descriptive vocabulary.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It’s all supercharged with language learning tools. Every videos comes with interactive subtitles, flashcards and fun quizzes so you learn while you watch. It’s one of the most fun and effective ways to learn powerful English the way native speakers actually use it.
1. Sensory Imagery
Sensory imagery is what we can identify using our five senses: sight, touch, smell, sound and taste. Sensory imagery helps you create a vivid impression of an environment.
Imagine you’ve been asked to write an essay about a castle you visited on vacation. If you describe the castle as being “big and old,” the person reading doesn’t get much information.
But if you describe it as “cold, damp and shadowy,” the reader has a much better understanding of the castle (it suddenly doesn’t sound very appealing at all). Sensory imagery has changed the atmosphere completely.
Sensory imagery should be specific, detailed and engaging. The details should make your reader feel as though they’re stepping inside of a photograph and experiencing it for themselves.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to master this skill straight away. This is a skill for advanced English learners. Like all new things, it simply takes practice…
How to Practice Using Sensory Imagery: Journaling and Mind Maps
The best way to understand your senses it to use them! Keeping an English journal is a great way of tracking your experiences, and making notes of new descriptive vocabulary. Not only is journaling a challenging language exercise, but it’s also shown to be great for your mental health.
Pick a key memory from your day. It could be your favorite moment, or just something simple like making a cup of tea in the office. Write it down in the middle of your page.
For this example, we’ll imagine you had coffee with a friend.
Begin by asking yourself questions that involve each of your senses. What was your friend wearing? What texture was the material? What did your coffee smell like? Could you smell anything else in the cafe, like breakfast cooking? Jot down everything you remember.
Once you’ve got all the key details, it’s time to start branching out. How do these details make you feel? Does a particular sound remind you of something or somewhere else? Challenge yourself to get as detailed as possible, and keep a dictionary on hand to add in any new words you might be looking for.
If journaling isn’t your thing, you could make a speedy sensory mind map on Wordle. This is a great exercise for when you’ve got a couple of spare minutes at school or work.
In the text box, type out a list of everything you can hear, smell, see, touch and taste in the room around you. Wordle will automatically create a colorful cloud of descriptive English words that you can print out and use to inspire your writing.
2. Dynamic Verbs
Dynamic verbs (sometimes called “fientive verbs”) are used to describe activity and movement. These verbs describe actions, such as running, jumping and shouting.
Dynamic verbs are crucial to descriptive writing. When you’re learning any language, you’ll always begin with the most fundamental verbs. As you progress, you’ll see that there are hundreds of alternative ways to describe your actions in English and each of them creates a different mood.
Take this sentence as an example:
John throws the ball.
“To throw” is a fairly common dynamic verb. It tells us what action John has done, but doesn’t provide many clues about how. Now take this example:
John hurls the ball.
The verb “to hurl” means to throw something with great force. By varying our choice of dynamic verb, we now know that John is an aggressive sportsman, and we didn’t need to add any extra words.
How to Practice Using Dynamic Verbs: Folk Stories and Fairytales
Folk stories and fairytales are a great place to find useful English dynamic verbs. These stories are often told in short, simple phrases because they had to be memorable enough to pass on by word of mouth. Plus, stories that come from oral tradition are usually fast-paced and action-based, which makes them great for this exercise.
Pick a well-known folk story from your own language. It might be one you know from memory, or a book you’ve hung onto. Write down a basic outline of the story in English.
Now go through and highlight all of the dynamic verbs. How can you vary them to change the pace and mood of the story?
The witch laughs and dances around her cauldron while the children cry.
The witch cackles and cavorts around her cauldron while the children whimper.
3. Powerful Adjectives
Powerful adjectives can be alternatives to words we overuse in everyday language, such as “good,” “bad,” “happy” and “sad.” These words do a fine job of describing our feelings, but they can become a little repetitive.
Especially when you’re writing an English essay, you want to impress your reader by using more descriptive words.
Look through some of your older writing. Chances are you might’ve used phrases such as “very good” or “really interesting” to strengthen your points. These are opportunities to choose more powerful adjectives so you can describe a lot with fewer words.
Modifiers like “very” and “really” can be useful, and English speakers use them all the time—so there’s no need to throw them away all together. However, you should use them in moderation and avoid them in descriptive essays.
How to Practice Using Powerful Adjectives: Word Race and “Sell Me This Pen!”
A word race exercise only takes 15 minutes or so. Choose an adjective that you find yourself overusing and write it in the middle of a piece of paper. Set a timer for five minutes and see how many synonyms you can write around the page.
When the time is up, take a different color and use this to add in any other alternatives that you find in the thesaurus. Pin the paper somewhere you’ll see it, and challenge yourself to substitute the original word for one of the new ones next time you’re about to write it.
Another fun way to practice your adjectives is to try out the notorious “Sell me this pen” challenge from the film “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Imagine you have to sell someone a perfectly normal pen. What sort of powerful descriptive adjectives can you use to make it seem new and extraordinary? This one is trickier than you think, even for native English speakers!
English descriptive writing might seem scary in principle, but it’s far less scary in practice. If you’re committed to achieving a good degree of fluency, being able to write descriptively is the key route to articulating yourself clearly. If you aim to have some fun with your writing, turning out English essays will soon be far less of a chore than you anticipated.
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.