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InfoTrac College Edition

Description

Contents

What Is Description?

Description captures impressions of persons, places, objects, or ideas. It records what you see, hear, taste, touch, feel. Description is probably the most basic task writers face. Whether you are writing a short story, a term paper, or a sales proposal, much of your success as a writer will depend on your ability to provide readers with detailed descriptions.

Objective Description

Objective description focuses on facts, statistics, observable details. Textbooks, encyclopedias, training manuals, business reports, and government publications include objective description. Objective description avoids emotion, sensationalism, or subjective interpretation:

UN aid officials report that the drought has exacerbated the famine. Farms and cattle ranches have failed. Food production has virtually ceased. The death rate in refugee camps has increased 20% to 150 per day. Orphans have left the camps to beg for food from convoy drivers bringing supplies from the coast.

  • Objective description is best suited to academic, business, and professional writing. Although the writer may have an opinion, it is reflected by selecting factual details rather than using figurative language.
  • Objective description avoids personalized judgments.
  • Objective description is suited when you are writing as the agent as others, when your writing must reflect the ideas and observations of others.

Subjective Description

Subjective description is personal. It reflects the thoughts, feelings, mood of the writer. One writer may write a glowing description of Las Vegas, marveling at the lights, the glamour, the grandeur. Another writer may decry the city's shallow glitz, tasteless opulence, and dedication to selfishness and greed. Rather than focusing on factual detail, subjective descriptions seeks to create powerful impressions:

The once fertile valley is now a dusty moonscape of dry riverbeds, broken earth, and skeletons. Hundreds of men and women die of thirst, hunger, and disease in the heat and dust of the hopeless refugee camps. Emaciated orphans wander along the highway, lifting bony, empty hands to passing drivers. Scarred by hunger and loss, their young faces are old with death.

  • Subjective description is developed through careful selection of details and use of connotations.
  • Subjective description is best suited to personal essays, reviews, and commentaries. It is often used in advertising to motivate consumers.
  • To be effective, subjective description must use emotional appeals and images that readers will understand and appreciate.

Blending Objective and Subjective Description

Writers often blend objective and subjective description to balance factual detail with the power of emotional impressions. Popular biographies, news magazines, and marketing materials often present a mix of fact and image. By blending objective and subjective elements, writers can provide readers with both logical and emotional appeals:

Every six minutes someone dies of hunger and disease in the refugee camp. Drought has destroyed the people's ability to grow food. With only a cup of rice a day to sustain them, orphans have left the camp to beg along the highways. Unless you help, many of them will not survive more than a month.

  • Blended descriptions seek to enliven factual detail, to put a human face on statistics.
  • Blended descriptions generally avoid long blocks of dry facts or highly sensational images.
  • Blended descriptions are effective in reaching a mass audience.

Selecting Topics for Description Essays

If your instructor does not assign a topic, you might consider one of the following items. Select a topic, then explore its possibilities using one or more prewriting strategies:

a former boss an event that taught you something your home town
a childhood friend your first car a person you admire
your best or worst job the most irritating person you have met customers at a local bar or restaurant
a current fashion trend mega-malls the crowd at a recent concert
TV talk show hosts chat rooms the most moving or most disappointing place you have visited
a high school clique junk mail wearing contacts
off campus housing commercials aimed at children used cars
participants in a sport/hobby your daily commute being lost in cyberspace

Getting Started

Developing a topic for writing a descriptive paper can be difficult. You may find yourself selecting a person or place and discovering that you have little to say beyond outlining some obvious details.

Start By Telling A Story

Think of an interesting event you experienced or witnessed. Looking back at what occurred, select one person, place, or detail from the story -- much like describing a single character in a movie or one scene.

  • the decor of the strangest restaurant you visited
  • the first police officer who arrived at an accident scene
  • a hospital waiting room
  • the most striking person you met the first day on a new job

Consider Contrasts

Some of the most interesting subjects for description express surprising contrasts --

  • The homeless man who, though uneducated, makes a profound statement
  • The elegant restaurant that served the worst meal you had
  • The unheated, leaking cottage that you remember with great fondness
  • The brand new expensive imported sportscar that is a constant source of headaches

Narrowing Topics

Once you have selected a topic for description -- your first boss, your home town, a new computer system -- you are ready to narrow it and give it focus. Without focus, your description can become a list of generalities and superficial observations.

Ask Questions

A good way to narrow a topic is to ask questions:

  • What was your boss' greatest/worst trait?
  • What lesson did your boss teach you?
  • How did your boss solve problems?
  • What was your boss like in action?
  • What is special about your home town?
  • What would a first time visitor find interesting?
  • What would a visitor fail to notice?
  • What single characteristic shapes your town?
  • How does this computer differ from others?
  • How do you feel when operating it?
  • How does this computer change your job?
  • Does the computer seem to have a personality?

Narrowing the topic is important. Writing an interesting, engaging, detailed description about one aspect of a person's life or a neighborhood of a town is more interesting than one that attempts to describe everything.

Topic Narrowed Topic
my hometown the people who hang out in the town square
customers the customers who refuse to tip
commercials commercials for feminine hygiene products
football fan reaction to last week's game

Strategies For Improving Description

Although description is a basic writing task, it is challenging to write well. Too often descriptions end up being a list of details that create a static, lifeless portrait. There are a number of strategies you can use to make your description more interesting and effective:

Show Rather Than Tell

Instead of telling readers that your sister is stingy, show her in action:

Original:

My sister is stingy. She watches and counts her money constantly. She will only buy something if it is on sale or if she can get a discount. She buys the cheapest items and constantly boasts how much money she saves, no matter how much her efforts inconvenience the family.

Improved:

My sister is stingy. Although we live three blocks from Save-More Foods, she insists I drive her twelve miles to Daggerts every Wednesday to benefit from "Double Coupon Day." Rather than buy what we need, she consults her wad of coupons clipped from Sunday's newspaper. No coupon, no purchase. She will return with four boxes of discount cereal and no milk or two pounds of half-priced sliced ham and no bread. Let someone else pay full price.

Add Action, Dialogue, And Brief Narratives

You can bring life to a description of a person or a place by adding elements of narration:

The courtroom is a blend of nineteenth century wood and stained glass and twenty-first century technology. The oak paneled walls still bear scars from a pipe bomb that exploded during the 1968 trial of two draft resisters. Portable bullet-proof glass shields, used during the trial of a high profile mob informant, now serve as bulletin boards. Video and computer screens now flank the tables where once Clarence Darrow sat behind a stacks of law books. The bailiff's curt, choked "All Rise!" still has the ring of a 1910 train conductor.

Even a description of landscape can be given a sense of life and movement by showing how the scene differs with the seasons or even changes in lighting.

Description Checklist

BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR PAPER, REVIEW THESE POINTS.

  1. Have you limited your topic?
  2. Does your support suit your context? Should it be objective, subjective, or a blend?
  3. Is your description focused and clearly organized, or is it only a random list of facts and observations?
  4. Have you avoided including unnecessary details and awkward constructions?
  5. Does sensory detail include more than sight? Can you add impressions of taste, touch, sound, smell?
  6. Do you avoid overly general terms and focus on specific impressions? Have you created dominant impressions?
  7. Do you show rather than tell? Can you add action to your description to keep it from being static?
  8. Do you keep a consistent point of view?
  9. READ YOUR PAPER ALOUD. How does it sound? Do any sections need expansion? Are there irrelevant details to delete or awkward expressions to be revised?

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.