Fiction Friday: Three Different Types of Description (and exercise)

This week, I had the enormous pleasure of leading my first session with the Young Writer’s Club in Lynn Valley. It was a lively session filled with talent young writers from ages 11-17. We started our session with some writing prompts, and then I led them to an exercise on description, which I borrowed from a fun book I discovered in San Francisco, called Don’t Forget to Write! from the group at 826 Valencia street. This exercise was on description (and I’ve modified it slightly).

I started the exercise describing the three different types of description:

  1. Not-so-great: These are those descriptions that could be better. They’re fine in a first draft, but when it comes time to share your work with others, you should consider reworking them. They fall under one or two categories:
    1. Clichés: These are phrases you’ve heard so many times, they’ve lost their value as dscriptions, such as: She ate like a bird. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He was as strong as an ox. It was as hard as a diamond. For more information on clichés, read my post on them.
    2. Clunky/Awkward: These are descriptions that the reader cannot follow: Her hair looked like mashed turnips, only brown. His car was like a caterpillar crossed with a Great white shark.
  2. Useful: This is description that is plain but necessary. Like the name suggests, these types of descriptions are useful. They help the reader experience the story more fully: Her face was long and oval. He had orange hair and green eyes.
  3. Golden: According to the authors of Don’t Forget to Write (page 3), “this is a detail, description, or analogy that is singular, is completely original, and makes the subject unforgettable: She tapped her fingernail rhythmically on her large teeth as she watched her husband count the change in his man-purse.”  This detail is golden because it speaks volumes about both characters. It should also be noted that golden description can even come about from plain words if they add specificity.


For the exercise, I passed around sheets of paper, each one with an individual item on them that the students were asked to describe as best they could. They were to write a description and then pass it along. After several rounds, I asked them to hand their papers in to me, and I also asked their permission to post some of them anonymously.

Young Writer Contributions:

Here are some of the wonderful descriptions they came up with:

For… “The look in someone’s eyes who’s just seen a car accident.”

Her eyes were wide, round and hollow, with a broken quality to them. Like empty, chipped teacups left out in the rain.


A jarred, glassy look settled on her face as she watched the perimedics rush to the cars.

For… “A beach on a sunny day.”

The lazy mood caused by the golden sun and the warm breeze rolled in with the lapping waves.


Everything was melting, the sand, the tides, and even the sun.

For… “A blind person (man or woman) walking down a hall.”

He walked cautiously down the hallway, fingers feeling the braille of the walls.


All the heads turned towards the woman, and the once lively halls fell silent. Her slumped back and cane were an oddity.

For… “The look on a man’s face whose son has died in a war.”

His face crumpled like paper in a fire, and his eyes leaked quiet tears.


Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes, his shoulders heaving as he doubled over.


His face concealed the now empty hole inside him. He laughed. He smiled. But his eyes were grey and still.

For… “The sound and smellof rain in a Vancouver winter.” 

A symphony of faint patters filled my ears, while the cold filled my bones. The Vancouver special.


The smell of car exhaust was erased by the winds. The taste of Vancouver arrived with the rain. Welcome to my city.


The fresh, clean scent of the rain was lingering on a clear winter morning. She could hear the clanking of the large raindrops on the metal rooftop.


Little children’s feet ran across the window pane.

For… “The sound and smell of rain after a long drought.”

Emily’s eyes were filled with happy tears as the rain fell silently onto her half-dead plant, rescuing it from Hades.


He ran out onto the cracked desert ground to feel the rain on his outstretched arms. The smell reminded him of new life, and the dead silence of the desert was replaced by joy.


Wet life drizzled everywhere.


The dry battle was won.



Thank you, readers for letting me share this with you. I look forward to working with these young writers next month. Thank you Maggie Bolitho for trusting me to look after this group that you put your heart into for so long.

And for those of you who’d like to do this exercise at home or with your own writing group, you can download the prompts here: Best Description Exercise_mini.

If you’d like to write one of your own, please do so in the comments. If’ you’ve got a favorite, share that as well. I’d love to hear from you.

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