That Word on the Tip of Your Tongue

It’s always there. That one little word you can’t actually think of. The thing that will describe what you’re after perfectly but refuses to make its presence known outside of your brain. It sits there, mocking you, dancing on the tips of your taste buds while you fumble to catch it. It is the descriptive word. The word to end all words! No, not really, but it is one of many that helps to enhance what you say in that magical way. You know, if you were able to nail it down instead of letting it flit about inside your mouth.


We are, of course, speaking of descriptive words. The tiny beasties that evoke emotion, make us cry or laugh, or take running leaps from the doorway to the bed so the monsters don’t grab our feet in the night. And, furious little things they may be, they are so incredibly important to a piece of work – whether that be fiction or non-fiction.


In non-fiction, they describe the places and things not everyone gets to see. Reading a description of the ancient temples in Indonesia should drop me there, should make me see the moss growing on the archaic stones and hear the squawk of whatever bird lives there. As writers, we depend on these accurate descriptions for our own works. While it would be nice to think we can jump on a jet plane and scoot-scoot our way over to all of the places we might want to write about, that simply is not how life works so we turn to the experts, to the ones that have studied and seen, experimented, and experienced to educate us and fill our minds with the knowledge we seek.


In fiction, description takes us to far off locations, fantastic worlds or shows us shimmering lakes filled with blobby fish. They introduce the characters that we grow to love down to the little heart-shaped freckle on their bottom that you didn’t realize they had until just now. Yeah, we looked. Our mind’s eye formulates images from tiny blades of green grass to extravagant gowns knit from the stars themselves. The descriptions in fiction become our escape, become our bedtime experiences, and our dreams.


But, how do we ensure that the description is powerful enough to conjure images and evoke emotions? Practice. Everything takes practice, but there are a few exercises that help. One, forces you to go through the senses.


Shut your eyes. It doesn’t matter where you are, just shut your eyes and pick one of your senses. Obviously not sight – we’ll get to that one. What is it that you hear? A bird? What does it sound like? Maybe the traffic outside your office window. Is it constant, distant, are there horns blaring or is it fairly quiet? Just listen for a good five minutes; set a timer if you have to. When that five minutes is up, write down what you heard with as much detail as you possibly can. Repeat the exercise for the other senses: hold something in your hands, taste something new, smell the area around you. If it is safe to do so, try walking around your space and then describe it without looking around. Now, we’ll get to the eyeballs. We experience most things with our eyes. If we can’t see it, it almost ceases to exist. Almost. Those other senses do kick in after a while, but sight is pretty much the primary sense used by most creatures and, certainly, by anything with upright intelligence. So, much like the other senses, pick a spot to sit and look around. What’s on your desk? In your office or bedroom? How many pens are in that cup? Absorb it for the same five minutes then leave that space. Take your notebook with you. Once you’re good and gone from that space, write down what you saw.


Repeat these exercises at your leisure. Read things rich in descriptive text. You’ll start to see, over time, how your own descriptions improve, bringing things to life on the page. And, try not to let the taste buds hold on to those precious words. They’re quite necessary.

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