TO WRITE EFFECTIVE DESCRIPTION
writer of description creates a word-picture of persons,
places, objects, and emotions using a careful selection of
details to make an impression on the reader.
descriptive prose is called for in your writing, consider
these four basic suggestions:
Recognize your purpose.
Description is not free-floating; it appears in your writing
for a particular reason—to help you inform, clarify,
persuade, or create a mood.You may want to convey a
particular attitude toward your subject; this approach to
description is called subjective or
impressionistic. Note the differences between the
following two descriptions of a tall, thin boy: the
objective writer sticks to the facts by saying, “The
eighteen-year-old boy was 6’l” and weighed 125 pounds,”
whereas the subjective writer gives an impressionistic
description: “The young boy was as tall and scrawny as a
birch tree in winter.” Before you begin describing anything,
you must first decide your purpose and then whether it calls
for objective or subjective reporting.
Describe clearly, using specific details.
any description clear to your reader, you must include a
sufficient number of details that are specific rather than
fuzzy or vague. If, for example, your family dog had become
lost, you wouldn’t call the animal shelter and ask if they’d
seen a “big brown dog with a short tail”—naturally, you’d
mention every distinguishing detail about your pet you could
think of: size, color, breed, cut of ears, and special
markings. Similarly, if your car was stolen, you’d give the
police as clear and as complete a description of your
vehicle as possible.
reader cannot imagine your subject clearly if your
description is couched in vague generalities. The following
sentence, for example, presents only a hazy picture:
Larry is a sloppy dresser.
the picture is now sharply in focus:
wears dirty, baggy pants, shirts too small to stay tucked
in, socks that fail to match his pants or each other, and a
stained coat the Salvation Army rejected as a donation.
details can turn cloudy prose into crisp, clear images that
can be reproduced in the mind like photographs.
Select only appropriate details.
description the choice of details depends largely on the
writer’s purpose and audience. However, many
descriptions—especially the more subjective ones—will
present a dominant impression; that is, the writer
selects only those details that communicate a particular
mood or feeling to the reader. The dominant impression is
the controlling focus of a description; for example, if you
wrote a description of your grandmother to show her
thoughtfulness, you would select only those details that
convey an impression of a sweet, kindly old lady. Here are
two brief descriptions illustrating the concept of dominant
impression. The first writer tries to create a mood of
black winding road stands the abandoned old mansion,
silhouetted against the cloud-shrouded moon, creaking and
moaning in the wet, chill wind.
second writer tries to present a feeling of joy and
kites filled the spring air, and around the bright picnic
tables spread with hot dogs, hamburgers, and slices of
watermelon, Tom and Annie played away the warm April day.
Therefore, remember to select only those details that
advance your descriptive purpose. Omit any details you
consider unimportant or distracting.
your descriptions vivid.
clear, precise words, you can improve any kind of writing.
appropriate, try using images that appeal to your readers’
five senses. If, for example, you are describing your broken
leg and the ensuing stay in a hospital, tell your readers
how the place smelled, how it looked, what your cast felt
like, how your pills tasted, and what noises you heard. Here
are some specific examples using sensory details:
The clean white corridors of the hospital resembled
the set of a sci-fi movie, with everyone scurrying around in
identical starched uniforms.
night, the only sounds I heard were the quiet squeakings of
sensible white shoes as the nurses made their rounds.
The green beans on the hospital cafeteria tray
smelled stale and waxy, like crayons.
hospital bed sheet felt as rough and heavy as a feed sack.
four hours they gave me an enormous gray pill whose
aftertaste reminded me of the stale licorice my grandmother
kept in candy dishes around her house.
appealing to the readers’ senses, you better enable them to
identify with and imagine the subject you are describing.