Painting with Basic Brush Strokes: Descriptive Writing Techniques


specific, concrete nouns


vivid verbs


the appositive


the participle


prepositional phrases


adjectives shifted out of order





Specific, Concrete Nouns

Precise nouns help your reader really see what you are describing.

General: Our neighbor Boo gave us several things and saved our lives.

bulletSpecific: Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.  --Harper Lee

General: It snowed last night in town, but today the sky was clear and snow was everywhere.

bulletSpecific: The streets glistened with fresh snow and the sky was a blameless blue. Snow blanketed every rooftop and weighed on the branches of the stunted mulberry trees that lined our street. Overnight, the snow had nudged its way into every crack and gutter.  --Khaled Hosseini

General: The rebels handed out weapons of all kinds to the people.

bulletSpecific:  . . . muskets were being distributed—so were cartridges, powder, and ball, bars of iron and wood, knives, axes, pikes, every weapon that distracted ingenuity could discover or devise..  --Charles Dickens

Write a descriptive sentence using precise nouns. Try: The student put everything in his (her) bookbag.

Vivid Verbs

Energize your writing by eliminating passive verbs, replacing weak being verbs, and enlivening dull verbs.

Passive verbs

Passive: Juliet's expressions of love were heard by Romeo, hiding in the garden.

Active:  Hiding in the garden, Romeo heard Juliet's expressions of love.

Passive: The pocket watch was discovered in the hollow of the tree by the children.

Active: The children discovered the pocket watch in the hollow of the tree.

Passive: The worm-eaten stool and table were beaten to pieces in a few blows by Defarge.

Active:  Defarge . . . turning on the worm-eaten stool and table, beat them to pieces in a few blows. --Charles Dickens

Being verbs

Replace being verbs with more vivid action verbs.

Being verb: The mockingbirds were in the large oak tree by the porch.

Action verb: The mockingbirds perched in the large oak tree by the porch.

Being verbs:  A tremendous roar was coming from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms were in the air

                    like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind.

Action verbs: A tremendous roar arose from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms struggled in the air

                   like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind . . . --Charles Dickens

Dull Verbs

Replace dull, general verbs with more descriptive, vivid verbs.

          Dull verb: A cold breeze blew through my hair.

          Vivid verb: A cold breeze wafted through my hair.  --Khaled Hosseini

          Dull verb: Defarge gave orders, handed out arms, pushed this man back, pulled this man forward, took away one man's weapon

                         to give it to another, worked in the thickest of the uproar.

          Vivid verb: Defarge himself . . . issued orders, issued arms, thrust this man back, dragged this man forward, disarmed one to arm another,

                         laboured and strove in the thickest of the uproar.  --Charles Dickens

Try this:

The small ship was tossed by the jagged gray waves while the boy who was in the water reached for the rope the sailors threw to him.

In your writing, revise sentences that contain passive, being, or dull verbs.


The Appositive

    An appositive is a noun phrase that adds a second image to a previous noun, expanding details in the reader’s imagination.


The path, a faintly worn trail, guided the traveler through the dense forest.


He had high cheekbones, a sharp-cut nose, a spare, dark face, the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat. –-Richard Connell


He threw over her shoulders the wraps he had brought for going home, modest garments of everyday life whose shabbiness clashed with the stylishness of her evening clothes. --Guy de Maupassant

    Write a descriptive sentence using an appositive phrase. Try: The singer bowed to the crowd after her song.

             Write one or more noun phrases renaming one or more of the underlined nouns in the sentence.


The Participle

    Participles, verbals ending in –ed and –ing, evoke action.

    Add participles to sentence beginnings:

bullet Squabbling, chasing, giggling, kids were flinging snowballs

    Add participial phrases to sentence beginnings:


Squabbling, chasing one another, giggling with triumph when they hit their targets, kids were flinging snowballs.

    Add participles & participial phrases throughout a sentence:


Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. --Edgar Allan Poe


Unencumbered with luggage, they [travelers on horseback] would soon overtake the coach, and, passing it and preceding it on the road, would order its horses in advance, and greatly facilitate its progress during the precious hours of the night, when delay was the most to be dreaded.  --Charles Dickens


Swinging the hatchet at the slender elm tree and trimming away the smaller branches, the boy pulled the severed limbs away with his other hand, satisfied with his efforts, for once, filling the wagon with enough wood to keep his family's hearth supplied for the next month

    Write a descriptive sentence using more or more participles or participial phrases. Try: The mountain climber scaled the cliff.


        Prepositional Phrases

    Prepositions link nouns and verbs to a descriptive detail.

    The result is a prepositional phrase which adds more information in a compact, efficient way.



He saw, by the table between the two tall candles and the fire, a young lady of not more than seventeen, in a riding cloak, and still holding her straw hat by its ribbon in her hand. --Charles Dickens


His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down,  where the sea licked its greedy lips in the shadows.  --Richard Connell

    Add more detail to your sentences using prepositional phrases. Try: The candlelight flickered as she waited.


Adjectives Shifted Out Of Order

    Adjectives placed out of order amplify the details of an image.

    Adjectives in order before the noun:

bulletThe rough, white-tipped, surging waves pounded the shore in advance of the storm.

    Adjectives shifted out of order for effect:

bulletThe large waves, white-tipped and surging, pounded the shore in advance of the storm.

    Consider the effect of the adjectives in these sentences by William Stafford in "The Osage Orange Tree":


It was a poor newspaper, by the way, cheap, sensational, unreliable.


She glanced toward the barn and leaned toward me. "Go away!" . . . I stood there, half-defiant, half-ashamed.

    Write a sentence with three adjectives describing a noun. Place the adjectives in regular order before the noun.

    If you cannot think of a sentence, try adding adjectives to this sentence: 

            The wind blew through the town. (Your adjectives may describe either the wind or the town.)

            Now, rewrite the sentence by shifting the adjectives out of order.


The Absolute

Absolutes are two-word combinations—a noun and an –ing or –ed verb added onto a sentence.

bullet Arms stretched out, legs twisting, the skateboarder skimmed the edge of the railing.

Absolute phrases are formed by adding other descriptive detail to the absolute.

bullet Fingers fumbling nervously with the corners of the pages, the young student read her paragraph in a faint whisper.

Imagine the comma as a zoom lens focusing in on the images:

bullet Michael raced to end of the pool, feet kicking up a wake of wild, frothy waves.

Write a descriptive sentence using an absolute phrase. Try: The lion crouched in the tall grass.



    Use conjunctions to join shorter sentences together and to consolidate longer clauses for more effective sentences.

    Coordinating Conjunctions:   and      but       for       nor      or         so         yet

Sweat popped out on the boy's face, and he began to struggle. --Langston Hughes

You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.

The runner knew he had lost the race, yet he continued on, determined to finish.

    Correlative Conjunctions

            either . . . or                            whether . . . or                                                both . . . and

            neither . . . nor                       not only . . . but also                          just as . . . so

        Either the football team will eat before they leave, or they will stop on the way.

        Not only is To Kill a Mockingbird still a very popular novel, but also the film is considered to be excellent.

    Conjunctive Adverbs                 

accordingly                 however                      otherwise                    as a result      

additionally                indeed                         similarly                     at last

afterward                    instead                       soon                            for instance

also                             later                            subsequently               in addition

besides                       next                             still                              in comparison

consequently              meanwhile                  then                             in contrast

finally                         moreover                     therefore                     in fact

furthermore                nevertheless                thus                             in the same way

                                                                                                            on the other hand

        In the long run, men hit only what they aim at; therefore, they had better aim at something high. --Henry David Thoreau

        If two friends ask you to judge a dispute, don't accept, because you will lose one friend;

        on the other hand, if two strangers come with the same request, accept because you will gain one friend. --Saint Augustine

    Subordinating Conjunctions


              after                            as though                    provided that              until

            although                     because                       since                            when

            as                                 before                         so that                         whenever

            as far as                      even if                        than                              where

            as if                             even though                that                             wherever

            as long as                    if                                  though                       while

            as soon as                   in order that               unless           


bulletMemory is deceptive because it is colored by today's events. --Albert Einstein

        OR    Because it is colored by today's events, memory is deceptive .


 I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is a much better policy to prophesy

        after the event has already taken place. --Winston Churchill

bulletUnless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow. --Ralph Waldo Emerson