ENC1101 First-year Composition











The 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.


When 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.


To make 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.


The 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.


Revised, the picture is now sharply in focus:


Larry 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.


Specific details can turn cloudy prose into crisp, clear images that can be reproduced in the mind like photographs.


Select only appropriate details.


In any 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 mystery:


Down a black winding road stands the abandoned old mansion, silhou­etted against the cloud-shrouded moon, creaking and moaning in the wet, chill wind.


The second writer tries to present a feeling of joy and innocence.


A dozen 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.


Make your descriptions vivid.


By using clear, precise words, you can im­prove any kind of writing.


Use sensory details. If it’s 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:


Sight                The clean white corridors of the hospital resembled the set of a sci-fi movie, with everyone scurrying around in identical starched uniforms.


Hearing           At night, the only sounds I heard were the quiet squeakings of sen­sible white shoes as the nurses made their rounds.


Smell               The green beans on the hospital cafeteria tray smelled stale and waxy, like crayons.


Touch              The hospital bed sheet felt as rough and heavy as a feed sack.


Taste               Every 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.


By appealing to the readers’ senses, you better enable them to identify with and imagine the subject you are describing.