Share this article on Facebook
How To Trash The Travel Speak And Write Descriptions That Sell
by Jennifer Stevens
The descriptions that editors like -- the ones
they pay for -- are those that paint pictures so vivid, readers see and feel and
taste right along with the writer.
How do you make sure your descriptions do that?
The short answer is: "Show don't tell" -- a
maxim of good writing you'll come across in nearly any book devoted to the
But what, exactly, does it mean? How do you, in
fact "show" and not "tell" in your own writing?
Turns out, it's not that easy. Don't despair: In
a moment, I'll let you in on a secret that will help immensely.
First, though, let me back up...
*** WHAT, EXACTLY, IS "SHOW DON'T
"Show don't tell" means that you shouldn't just
announce directly what a place is like and how it makes visitors feel. Instead,
you should describe it in such a rich way that your reader experiences it for
In other words, lead your reader to draw his own
conclusions about a place. Don't lay them out for him.
For example: Say you're writing about a
back-of-beyond hotel on some barely charted island in the Mozambique Channel.
You could say it's remote. And you could say it's peaceful.
But a more skillful writer would, instead,
describe the place in such a way that the reader would find himself thinking,
"Boy, this sounds like the most remote, peaceful place on Earth."
So, how can you "show" your reader remote? Well,
tell him about how you get there -- the four-hour ride into dense bush in the
canvas-topped back of a 1979 Peugeot pick-up truck with three chickens, four
shrouded women, and an infant for company.
And how do you "show" peaceful? Perhaps describe
the night -- how the only sounds you hear are the rustling of lemurs in the
trees above, the squeaks of the fruit bats, the sloshing of the Indian Ocean as
it slides between the jagged lava rocks that frame the sandy cove where this
I know... it's one thing to read it, it's
another altogether to do it yourself. But take the following advice seriously,
and you will improve every description you write:
*** THE BIG SECRET: AVOID "FILLER" WORDS (OFTEN
ADJECTIVES) THAT DON'T REALLY SAY ANYTHING... OR SAY SOMETHING TO ONE PERSON AND
SOMETHING ELSE TO ANOTHER.
Sometimes it's hard to find that stand-out
detail that really characterizes a woman's dress. So you just say it's
You ring the bell in a rural French town, and a
shopkeeper comes down from his upstairs apartment to open his antique store. You
wander through, even buy a little something -- silver ice cube tongs. In your
story, the shop is "quaint."
Travel writing is full of words like
"fashionable" and "quaint" that don't really say anything: pretty, lovely,
charming, upscale, idyllic, cozy, colorful, fancy, beautiful...
When you use words like those, you're just
filling space. You're taking the easy way out -- and editors know it.
Sometimes, to be fair, those filler words do say
something -- it's just that what they say to you as a writer might not be at all
what they say to your reader.
As William Zinsser put it: "One man's romantic
sunrise is another man's hangover."
Consider this description, which relies on too
many "filler" words:
"We're greeted on arrival by hot, tropical
weather. A blessing. There's the beautiful bay, Bahia de Zihuatanejo, that we
saw in the pictures. Our palapa is at the edge of an idyllic jungle."
"Beautiful bay" -- one reader conjures up Cape
Cod in his mind, another sees a Caribbean island.
"Idyllic jungle" -- one reader thinks of a tamed
landscape with lighted, stone walkways and strategically planted frangipani,
another sees a dense expanse of vines and trees, seemingly
*** CHOOSE, INSTEAD, SPECIFIC DETAILS. LEAD YOUR
READER TO DRAW HIS OWN CONCLUSIONS FROM THEM.
Here, by contrast, is a description rich in
specifics, which make it genuinely compelling. Ever since I first read this,
I've had an itch to see Oslo in winter. And at least one editor liked it -- this
appeared in the "New York Times":
"There were little white candles flickering
everywhere in Oslo even in the breakfast room of the hotel, where we guests
all lingered over our lavish Scandinavian smorgasbord. According to our
preferences, we fortified ourselves with three kinds of herring, with
soft-boiled eggs or shrimp salad, with mackerel in tomato sauce or muesli. We
refilled our plates and sipped our tea and coffee, reluctant to go out into the
winter cold. Little white candles in silver-stemmed goblets, in smoked-glass
boxes, in pewter saucers were burning on every table in every
café and restaurant, like a promise to hold onto the light
right through the winter darkness."
The writer doesn't tell us that guests have a
wide choice of breakfast foods. He doesn't tell us it's cozy. He doesn't tell us
Oslo in winter is surprisingly enticing. He provides us the specifics and lets
us draw those conclusions from them.
You want your descriptions to make the places
your describing come alive for your reader. You want him to join you there. It
takes energy and effort. But if you're careful to shun "filler" words in favor
of specific details, you'll be way ahead of the pack. And editors will notice
© Copyright 2004, Jennifer Stevens
Jen Stevens has spent the balance of the last seven years gallivanting through Latin America and the Caribbean -- to
Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and beyond reporting on and writing about the best locales for overseas travel, retirement, and investment. She was long a writer and editor for
"International Living" and "Island Properties Report" both monthly publications devoted to living and investing overseas and on islands around the world, and she was a writer and editor for several years at 'Trade & Culture" magazine, a bi-monthly publication devoted to international trade issues. Jennifer is the principal architect and writer of
Passport to Romance: The Ultimate Travel Writer's Course, published by the American Writers & Artists Institute: http://www.thetravelwriterslife.com/course