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 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
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
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
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
||the crowd at a recent concert
|TV talk show hosts
||the most moving or most disappointing place you have
|a high school clique
|off campus housing
||commercials aimed at children
|participants in a sport/hobby
||your daily commute
||being lost in cyberspace
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
Some of the most interesting subjects for description express
surprising contrasts --
- The homeless man who, though uneducated, makes a profound
- The elegant restaurant that served the worst meal you
- The unheated, leaking cottage that you remember with great
- The brand new expensive imported sportscar that is a constant
source of headaches
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.
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.
||the people who hang out in the town square
||the customers who refuse to tip
||commercials for feminine hygiene products
||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:
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.
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.
BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR PAPER, REVIEW THESE POINTS.
- Have you limited your topic?
- Does your support suit your context? Should it be objective,
subjective, or a blend?
- Is your description focused and clearly organized, or
is it only a random list of facts and observations?
- Have you avoided including unnecessary details and awkward
- Does sensory detail include more than sight? Can you add
impressions of taste, touch, sound, smell?
- Do you avoid overly general terms and focus on specific
impressions? Have you created dominant impressions?
- Do you show rather than tell? Can you
add action to your description to keep it from being static?
- Do you keep a consistent point of view?
- 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?