Tom Leveen on Description

My public library (Mesa, Arizona) has been doing a writer in residence program this year. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from the professionals, like Tom Leveen.

I’ve seen Tom Leveen speak several times and he never disappoints. He’s a great storyteller with tremendous energy, and he’s incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge with aspiring writers.

Here’s what he had to say about writing description:

  • Decide what you want to evoke in the scene.
  • Clarity is god.
  • Describing what a character looks like is not character development – it doesn’t tell us anything about them. It’s not what they wear, but how they wear it.
  • Point of view is critical. If your viewpoint character is a 17-year-old girl, she’s not going to describe a rainbow the same way you would. Use the words your POV character would use.
  • We have more than 5 senses. Like thermoception (sense of temperature), nociception (sense of pain), equilibrioception (sense of balance and acceleration), proprioception (where our limbs are in relation to ourselves). Use them! David Morrell, the author of Rambo, recommends using one non-visual sense per page.
  • Everyone knows what bacon smells like. Don’t spend a paragraph describing it.
  • Use emotional memory. After you decide what you want to evoke, go back in time to when you felt what you’re trying to convey. It doesn’t have to be the same event – for your character’s first kiss, you don’t have to use your own awkward first kiss, but maybe your first concert if that’s more the emotion you want to evoke.
  • Use concrete detail. It’s not the length of the description but the specificity. Be aware of what the reader might assume if you don’t tell them. You can choose to leave things ambiguous. Don’t repeat what the reader already knows, like green grass.
  • The thesaurus: friend or foe? Stephen King says usually go with the first word that comes to mind. Tom says during revision, if the word doesn’t feel right, look for an alternative.


  • Finish your draft before you go back and revise. Revision is making deliberate choices.

He got a lot of questions about how to do research. He recommended using social media and in-person events to find people you can interview. There was a serendipitous illustration of this at the event: a mystery writer was asking how to find someone to talk to about a murder investigation, and there was a retired police investigator right there at the event who offered to meet with her.

Here are some other resources with info for writers:

And then Tom’s own website, where there’s a link to get his book on writing dialogue. I don’t have it yet but with his theatre background I’m sure it’s excellent.


Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.