Paint with Words

The 2 elements of powerful description (with examples)

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Over the weekend, a friend sent me an example of some of the best descriptive writing I’ve ever seen. The writer (John MacDonald) details an old air conditioner in a motel room in two different ways.

Let’s start with the bad example:

❌ The air conditioning unit in the motel room window was old and somewhat noisy.

And now that you’ve seen that catastrophe, here’s the good example:

✅ The air conditioning unit in the motel room had a final fraction of its name left, an "aire" in silver plastic, so loose that when it resonated to the coughing thud of the compressor, it would blur. A rusty water stain on the green wall under the unit was shaped like the bottom half of Texas. From the stained grid, the air conditioner exhaled its stale and icy breath into the room, redolent of chemicals and of someone burning garbage far, far away.

Can you see the difference? The second paints a picture, while the first has had all the color stripped from it.

The first gives the type of description that's likely to be followed by even more of those bland sentences. A bunch of slop that tells you next to nothing. In fact, you've probably set the story aside before you even get to the end of the paragraph.

The second description, though, breathes life into that hotel room. It gives both unique and specific details.

Here’s what MacDonald himself said about that horrible first description:

See? Because the air conditioning unit has lost its specificity, its unique and solitary identity, the room has blurred also. You cannot see it as clearly. It is less real.


And yeah, he even used the all caps. I promise I'm not trying to yell at you through the screen.

There’s one major takeaway I want to highlight for you.

Writers don’t just like to hate on adverbs. We love to hate on adverbs. They’re enemy number one, just ask anyone who’s read Stephen King’s On Writing. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” as King writes and everyone else (myself included) trumpets along.

But MacDonald calls out another villain — the ‘subjective’ word. I had never heard of this idea, but thought it was worth a closer look.

What is a subjective word? Great question. Consider these:

  • Old

  • Noisy

What, exactly, do they mean? Old, in comparison to what? Noisy, in comparison to what?

These words are subjective — they’re up for interpretation because the storyteller hasn’t given you any tangible context to interpret! Unless you have personal experience to draw on, you’re left guessing. This, as MacDonald put it, leads to a blurry room.

But look at that second description.

No longer is the AC unit just ‘old’ and ‘noisy.’ Now, it’s missing a letter in its name, has a stain shapes like Texas, and lets out a terrible smell along with cold air. From that description, the storyteller leads you to conclude that the unit is ‘old’ and ‘noisy’ without telling you in those exact words. Far more powerful.

I like this example MacDonald gives of specific, non-subjective description:

Do not say a man looks seedy. That is a judgment, not a description. All over the world, millions of men look seedy, each one in his own fashion. Describe a cracked lens on his glasses, a bow fixed with stained tape, tufts of hair growing out of his nostrils, an odor of old laundry.

Remember, good detail is both:

  • Unique

  • Specific

That way, you paint a picture in the mind of your audience. And it’s that picture — that tangible context that you provide — that they use to make their own conclusions.

The quotes from MacDonald come from The Writers Handbook, 1984. The piece is much longer, and I’ve tried to highlight the most interesting bits.

Have an awesome week,



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