There are several techniques to use when trying to make something more descriptive.
#1. The first technique is that you can add modifiers like adjectives or adverbs:
Example (without modifiers): The woman said hello.
Example (with modifiers): The frightened woman hesitantly said hello.
#2. You can also use a more specific word:
Example (with general word choice): The woman said hello.
Example (with more specific word): The waitress snapped a hello.
Of course you can use both techniques 1 and 2 in one sentence:
The frightened woman hesitantly mumbled a hello.
The waitress warmly said hello and asked if she could take our order.
#3. Another useful technique to keep in mind when trying to write descriptively is to show not tell. This is when you rely less on modifiers and words to describe but rather try to paint an image in the readers’ minds with sensory details and concrete and specific word choice. When you show not tell, you try to show impress a particular feeling about a person, place, or thing on the reader through your imagery. That is called a dominant impression. Here are some examples:
My room was a mess.
Using Show Not Tell:
My room was so cluttered full of junk. My mother wanted to kill me. You had to step over everything and it made it hard to walk. She told me that I was a slob and that I didn’t take care of my things. But I told her I didn’t have time to clean. Everything was thrown and scattered around the room and it was completely a disaster.
To enter the room, I was forced to squeeze in the small door opening, nearly getting stuck because heaps of dirty clothes obstructed the path of the door. Once inside, I had to concentrate fully on every step so that my shoes wouldn’t become tangled in the laundry and cause me to fall. Steps later, after freeing my leg from a malicious pair of blue corduroy pants, I noticed that under the spot vacated by those pants was a matted piece of green shag carpet, the only piece of carpet not being smothered by clothing in the entire room. The next thing to attack me was a Pink Floyd poster only partially pinned to the wall. The feeling of my head coming into contact with a foreign object made me whirl about in apprehension, swinging my elbow out and knocking it with force against a drawer jutting out from the half-empty clothes chest. Howling in pain, I flung myself on the bed, long parted with its sheets, and wondered if I wouldn’t be safer waiting in another room.
(Adapted from Writers in Training ©1984 Dale Seymour Publications p.173)
The telling sentence works like the topic sentence of a descriptive paragraph. It contains the subject and dominant impression but not the supporting details. Showing involves taking abstract words and using concrete, specific details in their place.
You can see that Response A, although more descriptive than the telling sentence, still relies on abstract describing words like “junk” or “disaster.” Response B relies more on showing the reader what messy looks like, using sensory descriptions and strong concrete details such as “heads of dirty clothes” or “a matted piece of green shag carpet, the only piece of carpet not being smothered by clothing,” etc.
Another short example:
a. The view from the room was nice
a. The view of the lake from the kitchen was spectacular.
Show not tell
a. The pink and blue sky darkened to shades of purple as the orange sun set over the lake.
Although academic writing does not necessarily entail a narrative writing, the techniques used to make a story come alive (strong sensory details, concrete specific details, strong word choice) all work together to make any type of writing, expository or otherwise, come alive for the reader.