WRITING A DESCRIPTIVE ESSAY
The aim of description is to make sensory details vividly present to the reader. Although it may be only in school that you are asked to write a specifically descriptive essay, description is an important element in many kinds of writing. Description embedded in an argument paper, for example, may be intended to make a position more persuasive. However, in this TIP Sheet we will discuss the descriptive essay as it is commonly assigned by instructors as an exercise in organizing sensory information and choosing vivid details.
Showing vs. telling
Sensory details are details of smell, taste, texture, and sound as well as sight. If you choose "showing" words, those that supply vivid sensory details appropriate to your subject and purpose, you will succeed in showing rather than telling. "Telling" words are usually vague or ambiguous; they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The following first example mostly makes statements about what is lacking in the room, whereas the second example describes the sights, textures, smells, and sounds of the empty room:
The empty room smelled stale and was devoid of furniture or floor covering; the single window lacked curtains or blinds of any kind.
The apartment smelled of old cooking odors, cabbage, and mildew; our sneakers squeaked sharply against the scuffed wood floors, which reflected a haze of dusty sunlight from the one cobwebbed, gritty window.
"Showing" uses very specific details: cabbage and mildew, scuffed and dusty floors, unwashed windows. Though the writer of the second example does not actually use the word "empty," she nevertheless suggests emptiness and disuse. The suggestion of emptiness in the second example is more vivid than the statement of emptiness in the first. If you don't think the first example is vague, look at another possible interpretation of that empty room:
The sharp odor of fresh paint cut through the smell of newsprint. Four stacked cartons of inkjet printer paper sat squarely in the middle of a concrete floor, illuminated by a shaft of morning light from a sparkling chrome-framed window on the opposite wall.
Do not mistake explanation for description. Explanation is a kind of telling that interjects background material that does not contain sensory details or contribute to the overall effect–a character's motives or history, for example:
The tenants had moved out a week earlier because the house was being sold to a developer. No one had bothered to dust or clean because they assumed the apartment was going to be knocked down and replaced with single-family homes like those built just a block away.
When description devolves into explanation (telling rather than showing), it becomes boring.
Once you are ready to abandon the attempt to explain or to tell about, evaluate your subject in terms of visual, auditory, and other sensory details. Think in concrete terms. The more you are interested in and connected to the subject, the easier it will be to interest your reader, so if you describe a person, choose a person whose characteristics stand out to you. If you describe a place or a thing, choose one that is meaningful to you.
You are painting a picture that must be as clear and real as possible, so observe carefully and, preferably, in person. Note what sets this subject apart from others like it. If the subject is a person, include physical characteristics and mannerisms. Describe abstractions such as personality traits only insofar as you can observe them. For example, do not tell the reader your biology instructor is a neat, meticulous person; show your reader the instructor's "dust-free computer monitor and stacks of papers with corners precisely aligned, each stack sitting exactly three thumb-widths from the edge of the desk." How a subject interacts with others is fair game for description if you can observe the interaction. On the other hand, a subject's life history and world perspective may not be, unless you can infer them, for example, from the photos on his walls or the books on his bookshelf.
Similarly, if the subject of your description is an object or a place, you may include not only its physical appearance but also its geographic, historical, or emotional relevance-as long as you show or suggest it using sensory details, and avoid explaining.
Deciding on a purpose
Even description for description's sake should have a purpose. Is there an important overall impression you wish to convey? A central theme or general point? This is your thesis; organize your essay around it. For example, you might describe your car as your home away from home, full of snack foods, changes of clothing, old issues of the Chico News & Review, textbooks, and your favorite music. Or, you might describe your car as an immaculate, beautiful, pampered woman on whom you lavish attention and money. Just don't describe your car in cold, clinical detail, front to back (or bottom to top, or inside to outside) without having in mind the purpose, the overall impression you want to create. To achieve this impression, you should not necessarily include all details; use only those that suit your purpose.
Avoid telling a story unless it is of central importance to the description or an understanding of it. Keep background information to an absolute minimum or avoid it altogether.
Extended description that lacks organization has a confusing, surreal quality and easily loses readers' interest, so choose an organizational plan. Use whatever progression seems logical–left to right, inside to outside, top to bottom-and stick to it. For example, it does not make sense to describe a person's facial features and hair, then his sonorous voice and impressive vocabulary, and then return to details about his eyebrows and glasses.
A quote from your subject or a brief anecdote about him or her may provide an interesting introduction (or conclusion); dialogue can be a great way to add interest to a descriptive essay. In your introduction, you might be permitted to make general, abstract statements (tell about) your subject or supply background information, as long as you demonstrate these points concretely later in the body of your essay.
Use vivid nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and appropriate metaphors, similes, comparisons, and contrasts. Avoid clichés.
Like the introduction, the conclusion is another place you can get away with reflecting about your subject: Why did you write this description? What is its significance to you? To your reader? If you have achieved your purpose, your conclusion should only confirm in the reader's mind what you have already shown him by your use of selected sensory details.
Good writing – like a good bar of rich dark chocolate – activates all your senses: ears, eyes, nose, fingers, and even your taste buds. Here are four concrete, specific examples of how to use your senses and sensory details when you write.
“If there is a profound secret to good writing, it lies in the engagement of the senses,” writes Oakley Hall in How Fiction Works: Proven Secrets to Writing Successful Stories That Hook Readers and Sell. He describes dozens of literary techniques, with examples from famous writers. Hall uses fiction writing snippets to describe what he teaches, but nonfiction writers can apply all his examples and techniques to their magazine articles, book chapters, and blog posts.
Here’s what he says about using your senses to improve your writing…
1. Use what you see in your writing
“Scarlet sandstone and sulky red marble became incandescent with the light, as though with inner fires, which merged with the blue cast of the air. The fantastic wrinkling of canyons and ravines…turning shadows blacker than black, the whole in movement…as the light advanced and shadow retreated…”
This is from Separations by Hall, who encourages writers to use color, form, light, and shadow to write descriptions that help readers see what writers see:“Her sleek black head nodded and her wrists were active, showing off the glinting, jingling bracelets she had bought all over the world.”
What are four things this description tells you about this woman? A secret of good writing is to show, don’t tell. Show, using the sensory detail of sound! Sight and sound often work together, and don’t necessarily need to be obvious or painstakingly described.
2. Use what you taste in your writing
“She spoke of fruit that tasted the way sapphires look…” writes Toni Morrison in Paradise.
Hall says descriptions of taste are almost always given in terms of other senses or in comparisons: “heavy, slow taste of blood,” wine tastes like liquid sunlight,” hot dog tasting like manna.” Why? Perhaps because taste is difficult to describe in writing.
Here’s an interesting tip for using sensory details in writing, from Arthur Plotnik in Spunk and Bite:
4 Examples of Sensory Details That Fire Up Your Writing
A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style: “Edgy writing and literature manifests and evokes emotional states, but in aesthetically stimulating ways. How? By pushing some element – situation, event imagery, language – to the limit, toward the precarious divide between unease and displeasure. Unease makes for intensity in art; the more the better – until it crosses the line into turnoff territory.”
3. Use what you physically feel
“I would wake with her weight tilting our mattress, her Shalimar settling over me when she leaned to kiss me and pull up the chenille bedspread, which had a nubble like Braille under my hands…I could feel through the bedspread the faint heat of her body as she sat a few inches from where I lay, that heat was all I needed.”
This is from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. What does this example of touch tell us about both characters? And, look at Karr’s use of “settling over me” and “weight tilting our mattress.” The secret to good writing is in the sensory details. Writers can use their senses to show, not tell.
4. What you smell – using your nose in your writing
“Proust’s lime-flower tea and madeleines; Colette’s flowers, which carried her back to childhood gardens and her mother, Sido; Virginia Woolf’s parade of city smells; Joyce’s memory of baby urine and oilcloth, holiness, and sin; Kipling’s rain-damp acacia, which reminded him of home and the complex smells of military life; Dostoyevsky’s ‘Petersburg stench’; Coleridge’s notebooks…”
Visuals fade, but odor is timeless, isn’t it? Hall encourages writers to use specific sensory details, not abstract ones, when describing smells.
Two interesting tips about your senses in writing:
- Sensory details are used best in conjunction – which is why the examples above contain more than one sense.
- Touch and taste are the most specific of the senses, because they’re unique to the individual experiencing them. Sound, sight, and smell are available to others nearby.
“Take chances in your writing,” urges Arthur Plotnik in Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style. “To, this ain’t Oxford, where word bunglers fear towel whippings and social snubs. Stick your thumb into that thesaurus and pull out a plumb. If now and then you end up with a prune, you’ll have learned something – and both you and English will survive.”
Read Spunk and Bite to Add Fire to Your Writing
I’m reading Spunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style – and I love it!
Arthur Plotnik encourages writers to bend all the writing rules and break all the journalism laws. He says we should “draw on all levels of language to animate expression.” To that end, he devotes 31 chapters to detailed analyses of the factors that make language sing.
Plotnik is especially adept at providing exactly the right quotation to make his point – and he draws from a wide variety of writers. In discussing onomatopoeia, for example, he cites the “throck” and “sploosh” of graphic novelist Mike Allred. Plotnik also excerpts humor writer James Thurber, who long ago was writing about tires that “booped and whooshed.”
For a quick list that may help with word choice – and sensory details in your writing – read 51 Over-Used Adverbs, Nouns, and Clichés in Writing.
What do you think of these examples of using your senses in your written work? Comments welcome below!