Write Like an Architect: Description by Design

    Write like an architect

    Imagine that your story or blog is a house.

    Can you picture it?

    What does it look like? How does it feel to be inside?

    Is it still just a wooden frame hastily nailed together and barely standing? Or a gaudy eyesore with so much ornamentation that you can’t see the actual building?

    If your writing resembles the first house, it’s probably lacking the finishing touches of description.

    If your writing looks like the second house (you guessed it) there’s probably so much description that readers lose the main point of the whole essay.

    So how can you strike a balance? When do you know you’ve gotten the right amount of description–not too much, not too little?

    When I dropped out of architecture school all those years ago to become a writer, I searched for ways to apply whatever design knowledge had gotten stuck in my brain.

    As with any discipline, there’s that one rule that sticks with you for life like any good cliché.

    In architecture school it was. . .

    “Form follows function.”

    It’s extra memorable because of the alliteration.

    At least form should follow function.

    In a perfectly designed world, I guess it would be.

    Having learned those lessons in my early architecture courses, I eventually saw the metaphor between architecture and writing

    Writing with too much description is like an over cluttered house. Visitors (and readers) can’t move through the space. They can’t see where they’re going or see the big picture.

    Without description, however, writing is like an empty house. Visitors have no reason to stay.

    Here’s how the principle of “form follows function” can apply to descriptive writing.

    Achieve quality rather than quantity.

    Instead of asking, “How much have I described?” ask “How well have I described?” The latter question will intuitively lead you to add more or cut more when necessary.

    Now let’s look at the two most fundamental functions of description: Characterization and Atmosphere (or mood). Other elements like setting and plot go into the main categories of characterization and mood.

    But I’m not just going to leave you hanging there. Certainly, more specific strategies would be useful.


    For characterization, use description that makes your characters surprising and unique. As Becca Puglisi and N. Strauss explain in their posts, this means not defaulting to standard, cliché descriptions. It means differentiating characters from others and making them specific.

    To make form follow function, your description should bring out the qualities that make your character distinct and memorable.

    Think about the character’s most significant and dominant traits.

    Which characteristics contribute to the story’s conflict, tension, and plot?

    Is the character painfully shy? OCD? A mathematical genius?

    Focus on those aspects of your character description.

    For example, a generic depiction of a character might say,

    “Joe had bright green eyes.”

    However, this description could become special if no one else in Joe’s family has green eyes, and the town mayor, whom Joe despises, has those same green eyes.

    See how this character description creates tension and the potential for conflict?


    The mood and atmosphere are usually created by describing the setting.

    I know what you’re thinking.

    Why not just title this part of the post “Setting”?

    Because talking about setting just for the sake of talking about setting is NOT functional.

    A functional description of setting develops… That’s right! It develops characterization and atmosphere, which can thicken the tension, conflict, and plot.

    When describing the setting, have a clear idea of what you want to convey. Is it horror or havoc? Redemption or romance?

    A remote island can be either romantic or terrifying depending on the focus of the description.

    Let me show you.

    As the golden sun set over the shimmering shore, and the breeze gently drifted in, Jane’s eyes met Joe’s.


    As the looming shadows grew larger, and the ghastly calls of wild beasts echoed in the dense wilderness, Jane’s eyes met Joe’s.

    Remember that all architects work with the same materials (walls, roofs, beams, etc.) but they all create their own unique design structures every time.

    The same is true for writers. Just because I’ve shared these general principles, doesn’t mean your pen or keyboard will suddenly turn into a cookie cutter.

    Take of these ideas what you will, and write.

    Do you have anything to add to the architecture metaphor? Let us know in the comments! If not, please share other analogies that you find useful for writing.

    About the author
    Sarah L. Webb is the creator of S. L. Writes On Writing, which shares valuable lessons gleaned from books on the writing craft, life, and business. You are welcome to recommend books on writing for a featured spot.



    About the author

      Sarah L. Webb

    • I don’t think I use any analogies in writing. What I do is I try to give as much detail and as little generic information as possible. I find that giving out specific details gives a sort of a hint to the reader, while a general description bores him to tears and sometimes may feel like an insult to their intelligence.

      I really love your example with Joe’s green eyes. You give a hint and let the reader make their own conclusion about his possible connection to the mayor without actually telling anything. I like reading books that are written like that.

    • DonnaMari says:

      sorry i didnot review and revise the above some of it was not clear … what i want to say is that it was a great article and that it helped me to think 🙂 d

    • DonnaMari says:

      Hi there Saran and all :), i am so late with this, but it was so intriging to me … i have been an architect for many year… and had to leave for health reasons … enough about me now let’s get back to Sarah great article. You brought things i forgot about and helped me through discription … although i have to say to do design u need to articulate the space well but it is diffenent in the story context …. but i thought from your article maybe not … we have characters in architecture too.. the clients builder electricians … am i boring u anyways.. i find your “achieve quality rather than quanity to to be spiritual also… having more of something in life is not always better ie more cars more house, clothes etc… it can drain u down.
      I just want to add on thing to your examples is the feasibility studies…. looking at the big picture and zooming into the programming small spaces and i love what others have said esp Carmelo.

    • Hi Jack! Glad you found my post a bit useful. I hope something in here helps you out. You are exactly right about visualization. It does start there. One thing I do is borrow from real things. If I need to describe a car, for example, I can look out at the parking lot and piece together details from the various cars I see to create my own. The color of one car, the bent bumper of another, the stickers on another, etc. So it’s not all from imagination. I’d like to here how it works out for you.

    • This was really interesting. I’ve always had a bit of a problem with description. I think it stems from a difficulty with visualization. If you can’t see something, it’s pretty damn hard to describe it. Definitely something I’m going to work on, and I’m definitely going to take your advice to heart. Thanks.

      • Hi Jack! Glad you found my post a bit useful. I hope something in here helps you out. You are exactly right about visualization. It does start there. One thing I do is borrow from real things. If I need to describe a car, for example, I can look out at the parking lot and piece together details from the various cars I see to create my own. The color of one car, the bent bumper of another, the stickers on another, etc. So it’s not all from imagination. I’d like to here how it works out for you.

    • That blog helped me “get it.” I have struggled with how to describe the setting and character in me non-fiction book – too much, too little or just right. Thanks for the help. Now I know how to re-write of the first paragraph.

      • That’s great, Jean! I’m glad the post gave you some ideas about revision. I do think most great moments of description happen in revision, when we can more clearly see what needs to be shown. Wish you the best writing with the book.

    • Jevon says:

      Interesting. I never thought of describing characters based on unique traits. I always figured to use average things like hair colour, weight, and height. I’ll keep this in mind. I like how you describe the atmosphere. It’s funny to think of Jane’s and Joe’s eyes meeting in the looming shadows with wild beasts.

      • Hi Jevon. I’m glad the post helped you gain a new perspective on description. I hope you play with some of these ideas ans share the results. Maybe you can even come up with a dozen other situations for Jane and Joe to meet eyes.

    • Carmelo says:

      In architecture, much of what concerns them beyond form and function is the strength of the structure itself. There ARE choices of materials and they choose them with care. They must be concerned with longevity, the interplay of materials, the pressure points, loads, wind sheer, transference … so many things. And all these could be brought into our writing. Nice piece, Sarah. The examples helped me understand your points.

      • Hey Carmelo! Thanks for your additional insight. You’re right, design is such an intricate affair. I especially like “wind sheer” and “transference.”

    • PJ Reece says:

      Well, I like Hemingway’s metaphor: “Prose is architecture, not interior decorating.” I tend to deploy this line in our writing group whenever I feel there’s too much discussion of commas and adjectives and not enough on the thrust of the characters.

      • I didn’t know Hemingway said that. It’s cool to know even infamous writers used metaphors to explain writing. I agree with your advice to the writing group. If all else fails, we can hire great editors to fix punctuation, but without strong characters, there’s no story.

    • Carole Mertz says:

      Humor, even in the darkest of passages, can let a little light in. = Windows

      Entrances into scenes use enticements. = Doors

      Building conflict and tension, then lessening same. = Stairways up, and then down

      Clarity of concept (a markedly noticeable theme) = The foundation of the house

      Over the top sexual scenes = Smoke rises from chimney

      • Nice metaphors, Carole! Even though I see an architecture analogy almost everywhere, I hadn’t thought of these. Thanks for sharing.

        • Carole Mertz says:

          Thanks for your reply, Sarah. I liked the whole concept of your blog article, though I suspect architects think very differently than authors. Architects have a pretty well established blueprint and can fairly predict what the “house” will look like. Authors can never be fully sure what kind of house will result.

          • I see your point, but I think the blueprint is more like a published story. It’s the result of hours, months of sketches, scale models, etc. The actual design phase of the building is much like any other creative process. Architects might have a vision, but they often start with a blank page and go through more iterations of a building than we might go through drafts of a story.

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