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An Inventory Of Description

© 2007 Jennifer L. Jordan

    Jennifer L. Jordan

I'm a writer at a loss for words.

I've written eight full-length mystery novels and yet often can't pinpoint the descriptive word I want. In the middle of a scene, I know the character has smiled, but what type of smile?

A faint smile? An ear-to-ear grin? A smile that never reached her eyes? A sheepish grin? A regretful smile? A smile that vanished quickly?

I strain to describe the smile until…I dip into my inventory of description.

The Microsoft Word file I've created contains ten categories, with more than 5,000 choices, and while it's taken me years to compile, I wish I'd had access to it from the beginning. Every writer deserves one!

Use the following tips to create your own categories and lists, and see below for samples from my collection.

Build As You Go

To build an inventory of description, extract phrases from magazines, newspapers, and books. While it's in poor taste to steal, "she raised an eyebrow that had been plucked to within a hair of extinction," no one has a monopoly on "she said, with regret."

You can also add to your inventory by paying attention to opposites and variances. "Kindly" leads to "meanly," and "easily" to "with difficulty." Don't stop at "she said coolly." There's always, "icily," "coldly" and "with little warmth."

Whenever you come across description, from your personal observations or reading, jot the ideas down on scraps of paper and throw these into a manila folder. Once a week, once a month, or between writing projects, add the new inventory to your computer file.

Managing The Inventory
After you've chosen categories, put the headings in 24-point type, with the lists in 12-point. As you scroll through the file, this will make it easier to spot the headings and instantly land on the category you need.

For even easier retrieval, alphabetize the lists within each category. If you're using MS Word, select all the words within a category (except for the heading), highlight them, choose table, sort, and ascending order.

One Inventory Per Project
In all likelihood, only one character per story would say "in a strangled voice, eyes welling." To avoid embarrassing repetition, retain a master file of description, create a new file for each project (simply by using the "save as" function for the file), and underline or delete unique expressions as you use them.

Use The Inventory Sparingly
Pretend you have to pay for every descriptor you withdraw from inventory and use them sparingly. If the dialog or action conveys words you just added, delete them before your writing reaches an editor or the public. For example, "I hate you" can stand alone if the sentiment is straightforward. No need to include "she said angrily." However, " 'I hate you,' she said, smiling warmly" conveys an entirely different meaning.

Sample Inventory

Leaned over
Plopped down


    Facial Movements/

Crinkled her nose
Face relaxed
Mouth fell open
An insane cackle
Belly laugh
Forced laugh
Guilty laugh

Blank look
Cast an appraising eye
Eyes widened
Flinty look
    Physical Description
Eyes far apart
Long, angular face
No makeup
Reddish complexion
Answered with a cool smile
Defiant smile
Silly grin
Smiled indulgently

Speaking Cadences
A hesitancy
Said eventually
Started abruptly


Breaking with emotion
Hushed tone
Loud whisper

Give it a try. Create your own inventory, and you'll never be at a loss for words…at least not descriptors!
Jennifer L. Jordan is the author of the Lambda Literary Award nominated Kristin Ashe mystery series, published by Spinsters Ink. Look for her fifth book in the series, Disorderly Attachments. For more information and to read excerpts, visit

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