The Magic Is in the Details: Using Descriptive Language

Contributor: Kimberly Wise. Lesson ID: 13047

Take your writing from "Blah" to "Wow!" How? Use descriptive language. Look at examples from popular literature, watch a video explaining the ins and outs of adding details, and then try it yourself.



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

Why does descriptive language matter? Why bother using it in your writing?

Let's try an experiment and find out. For example, let's say a character in a story is looking out the window. The author includes the sentence, “There was a tree outside.” What does that sentence actually tell you? Not much. It doesn't hold the reader's attention, and it also doesn't give the reader enough information to "see" what the character in the story sees. We don't know where the character is, what kind of tree it is, or anything else. But that sentence can be changed for the better through the magic of descriptive language.

Keep reading to find out how!

Let's try again with our sentence.

Remember, we started with, "There was a tree outside." Boring. Vague. Not much to go on.

Now, we'll apply some descriptive writing magic. How about, “Pale pink flowers dotted the branches of the flowering cherry tree outside Micah's bedroom window.”

  • See the difference?

Now we know the tree is a cherry tree, and we know that it's springtime if the tree is blooming. We also know that the character is at home and in his bedroom. Much better.

cherry tree

  • Want your writing to come to life?

Using descriptive language is a good place to start. You don't want to just tell the reader a basic idea of what is happening or what a character is thinking. You want to show what is happening through the inclusion of words that give us a clear picture of the senses, thoughts, feelings, and actions of the characters. Actually let the reader experience the story. Using descriptive language to give specific details will enable you to do this.

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is a prime place to look for examples of descriptive writing. Although the action of the books takes place in a fictional world, it is a world that has captured the imagination of millions of readers. Here is an example taken from the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this instance, Rowling is describing a creature called a "blast-ended skrewt," as seen by Harry.

“There were now only ten Skrewts left; apparently their desire to kill each other had not been exercised out of them. Each of them was now approaching six feet in length. Their thick grey armour, their powerful, scuttling legs, their fire-blasting ends, their stings and their suckers, combined to make the Skrewts the most repulsive things Harry had ever seen.”

You've never seen a blast-ended skrewt, right? Nobody has! But you can still picture it, thanks to descriptive language. J. K. Rowling "shows" us the blast-ended skrewt through her language choice and the details she includes.

  • So, how do you "do" descriptive language?

By focusing on language that appeals to the five senses:

  • sight
  • hearing
  • smell
  • taste
  • touch

Watch How to write descriptively - Nalo Hopkinson, from TED-Ed (below), to see how to use descriptive language. As you watch, pay attention to the descriptive details used in the examples. Use the Graphic Organizer - 3 Column Chart, found under Downloadable Resources in the right-hand sidebar, to note three examples of descriptive language that appeal to you. For each of your examples, note the source, the language, and which of the five senses the descriptive language is targeting.

How to write descriptively - Nalo Hopkinson:

Image - Video


Continue on to the Got It? section to practice your own descriptive language skills by using your senses to describe something tasty!

Image - Button Next