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Lecture: Writing Description

Good descriptive writing can bring places and people to life, but creating good desciption requires practice. When we are telling a story verbally, we have lots of techniques at our disposal that we don't have when we write. Just take a look at the way an Arizona man, George Lindell, describes an accident he witnessed.

George uses many techniques to help his audience understand how startling and frightening the accident was. He uses sound effects, and he changes the volume, speed, and pitch of his voice to convey the drama of the scene and his own emotional response to what he saw. He also uses physical gestures and facial expressions. When we write description, however, we do not have these tools at our disposal. We have only words on a page.

But George also uses many of the techniques experienced writers use to clearly communicate what happened:

  • dominant impression   After his initial response to the reporter's questions about what he saw, George gives his audience an overall impression of the scene: "Oh. It was crazy, Dude!" (When we write description, it is important to give readers a clear controlling idea—what we want the reader to understand about the scene or person. If the description is non-fiction, then creating that dominant impression may mean leaving out some details about the place or person that don't really add anything valuable as support for that impression.)
  • spatial organization   George describes elements in the scene from near to far, from "birds-eye" view to close-up, from far to near, etc.
  • concrete detail   He uses very specific details that are easy to visualize or imagine rather than general words.
  • sensory detail: texture   He mentions details that help the listener imagine the feel of things
  • sensory detail: sound   He brings the different sounds in the scene to life

Depending on what you are describing, you might include sensory details like odors or taste. Remember that we experience the real world through all of our five senses, and try to recreate that sensory experience on the page.

Subjective Description

Writers use descriptive paragraphs most often in fiction.  Just think of lines like "It was a dark and stormy night," or "The mountains loomed above them." Description of time and place draws readers into other worlds and sets the stage where a story can unfold. Description of characters, their appearance, mannerisms, and utterances, helps us imagine what people are like, as in this description of Caroline Meeber by Theodore Dreiser in his novel Sister Carrie

Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she had been half afffectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class . . . " 

In this type of description, the author is describing an impression. What is described is subjective, so the reader experiences the world as it appears to the author or the narrator in a story and learns what is important to the person recording the description.

Objective Description

Description is also used in reportorial and scientific writing, or other writing in which the goal is to present an objective picture of an object or scene. In these writing situations, the writer attempts to stay away from emotional impressions or responses, and instead report what is seen, as a video camera records a scene, as in the following example:

The Acer barbatum is a small to medium-sized, deciduous tree usually ranging from 15–25 m. (50–80 ft.) tall when mature. Bark is light gray and smooth on younger trees, becoming ridged and furrowed with age. Leaves are opposite and shallowly to deeply palmately lobed, with a few blunt teeth but no serrations. The leaf sinuses are rounded, unlike those of red maple (Acer rubrum) which are sharply V-shaped. Also, the sides of terminal leaf lobes are more or less parallel, while those of red maple are widest at the base, tapering to the tip. . . . (Sieberling)

Bias in Description

It is important to note that while being objective may be a writer's goal, getting past biases can be difficult.  What a writer notices and chooses to describe as well as what a writer leaves out of a description is influenced by many factors: the author's purpose for writing, how the author feels about the subject, the author's age, ethnic, and cultural background, cultural contexts for writing, and gender, as well. Therefore, part of writing good objective description is being aware of one's own biases.

Example of Descriptive Writing 

In the following excerpt from Wallace Stegner's story "The Dump," notice how Stegner uses concrete and specific detail as well as spatial organization to show how the town dump had "more poetry and excitement in it than people did." Notice how easy it is not only to visualize the scene, but also to imagine the odors and the textures of things — "bottles caked with dirt, half buried, full of cobwebs," and "the smell of lemon pop . . . so sweet on the dark pool-hall air," and "a welter of foul-smelling feathers and coyote-scattered carrion" at the decrepit chicken ranch.

We hunted old bottles in the dump, bottles caked with dirt and filth, half buried, full of cobwebs, and we washed them out at the horse trough by the elevator, putting in a handful of shot along with the water to knock the dirt loose; and when we had shaken them until our arms were tired, we hauled them off in somebody's coaster wagon and turned them in at Bill Anderson's pool hall, where the smell of lemon pop was so sweet on the dark pool-hall air that I am sometimes awakened by it in the night, even yet.

Smashed wheels of wagons and buggies, tangles of rusty barbed wire, the collapsed perambulator that the French wife of one of the town's doctors had once pushed proudly up the planked sidewalks and along the ditchbank paths. A welter of foul-smelling feathers and coyote-scattered carrion which was all that remained of somebody's dream of a chicken ranch. The chickens had all got some mysterious pip at the same time, and died as one, and the dream lay out there with the rest of the town's history to rustle to the empty sky on the border of the hills.

There was melted glass in curious forms, and the half-melted office safe left from the burning of Bill Day's Hotel. On very lucky days we might find a piece of the lead casing that had enclosed the wires of the town's first telephone system. The casing was just the right size for rings, and so soft that it could be whittled with a jackknife. It was a material that might have made artists of us. If we had been Indians of fifty years before, that bright soft metal would have enlisted our maximum patience and craft and come out as ring and metal and amulet inscribed with the symbols of our observed world. Perhaps there were too many ready-made alternatives in the local drug, hardware, and general stores; perhaps our feeble artistic response was a measure of the insufficiency of the challenge we felt. In any case I do not remember that we did any more with the metal than to shape it into crude seal rings with our initials or pierced hearts carved in them; and these, though they served a purpose in juvenile courtship, stopped something short of art.

The dump held very little wood, for in that country anything burnable got burned. But it had plenty of old iron, furniture, papers, mattresses that were the delight of field mice, and jugs and demijohns that were sometimes their bane, for they crawled into the necks and drowned in the rain water or redeye that was inside.

If the history of our town was not exactly written, it was at least hinted, in the dump. I think I had a pretty sound notion even at eight or nine of how significant was that first institution of our forming Canadian civilization. For rummaging through its foul purlieus I had several times been surprised and shocked to find relics of my own life tossed out there to rot or blow away.

Summary

Whether your goal is to write objective or subjective description, your paragraph should have a clear controlling idea so that your reader knows what to do with your descriptive details. In subjective description, that controlling idea should be a dominant impression of a particular scene or person. Supporting details should help the reader understand the dominant impression. For example, "It was a gloomy morning," is an example of a dominant impression; good supporting details could include "The morning air felt damp and cold. People huddled inside their coats."