Rhetoric and Composition/Description
What is Description?
The goal of description is to convey a person, place or thing in such a way that a picture is formed in the reader’s mind. Capturing an event through descriptive language involves paying close attention to details by using all of your five senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound). These senses are important to descriptive writing because they help the reader understand what the author is trying to say. As a descriptive writer, the more vividly you are able to describe what you have sensed, the more engaged audience will be with your text.
Grammatically speaking, descriptive language is the use of nouns and adjectives in order to most specifically describe the experiences of a particular sense. By making the language you use more powerful, you may use description in order to allow your reader to truly sense what you are writing about. To this end, one of description's main goals is making the abstract seem more concrete.
Specific descriptive language has uses outside of describing sensory experience. For example, the abstract idea of freedom may help many evoke different definitions and feelings for different readers, but when the idea of freedom is described to slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation, it becomes much more concrete and more uniform among readers. Description is used by writers in order to encourage their audiences to have a more specific reading of a text.
Why Write a Descriptive Essay?
A descriptive essay allows writers to engage their reader through the use of specific language and imagery. If the writer is trying to convey something that is scary or exciting, a concrete description is usually more effective than a vague or abstract one. These concrete descriptions create specific, vivid images in readers' imaginations. Think of a descriptive essay as being similar to writing a movie. At no time can a movie show beautiful. It must show what 'beautiful' is through the use of images.
A writer usually begins an essay with an objective. If a writer wanted to persuade the reader that ice cream is a tasty treat, what are descriptions that could cause the reader to want to eat ice cream? Would sweet sound appetizing? Would comparisons to other foods, such as a cherry, be used to convince the reader that the ice cream is worth trying? When you have begun to think in this fashion, then you are ready to start your essay.
Abstract Descriptions Versus Concrete Descriptions
Try to avoid vague, abstract descriptions. For example, a writer may write beautiful to describe a tree. However, beautiful is too vague. Instead, a concrete adjective or modifier would be stronger and gives greater impact. The reader needs details for a picture to form in their heads, abstract concepts like beautiful lack a real-world analog. Here's a reworked description of the tree: "the sun's rays glistened off the rain-slick leaves, even as the afternoon sky dipped towards evening." The beautiful qualities of the tree are "shown" through concrete details instead of merely told through abstraction. This gives the reader the illusion of immediate experience, as opposed to the dictionary variety
Abstractions are often ideas that cannot be seen, heard, touched, or smelled.
Examples of abstract descriptions:
- the sad man
- the happy woman
- the beautiful dog
- a lovely house
- an amazing sight
A concrete description can be seen, heard, touched, or smelled.
Examples of concrete details:
- the crunching sound
- the melted candy cane
- the burnt toast
- the flashing light
- the smooth butter
There are appropriate times to use abstractions. For instance, if the reader is already aware of the circumstances (i.e., a writer is referring to a passage from a novel, in which the audience knows of a certain event) then the writer can generalize the emotion. However, especially in creative works such as fiction and poetry, it is best to turn the abstract into the concrete.
Similes and Metaphors
Another way to add descriptive language is to use similes and metaphors, creating a picture in readers' heads by comparing two objects to one another. Similes and metaphors help to make connections between two ideas, concepts, or objects that clarify or give new meaning.
A simile is a comparison using the words like or as. It usually compares two dissimilar objects. For example, the bread was as dry as a bone. The comparison links a piece of bread that has become hard and white to a bone that is also hard and white. Bones often dry out, and so does bread. These similar characteristics are what make the simile effective.
A metaphor states that one thing is something else. It is a comparison, but it does NOT use like or as to make the comparison. For example, the athlete's stomach was a bottomless pit. The comparison implies that the athlete's stomach will not fill up easily or quickly. The athlete can eat lots of food.
To make a simile or metaphor, identify an object like a sunset, tree, or river, or a concept like love, peace, or anger. Then think of another object that has some similar traits. Decide whether the words "like" or "as" will help make the connection more understandable. A good simile or metaphor will make the reader look at both objects in a new perspective.
By adding similes and metaphors to a description paper, the writer can appeal to the readers' imagination and make the writing more interesting to read. Similes and metaphors add spark to descriptions.
How to Write Description
In order to write descriptively, you must take a topic and decide how to make that topic vivid for your audience. If the topic of the piece is merely to describe a particular place, you must decide what elements of that place, when described in text, will become most vivid for your audience. The first step in any descriptive writing is to choose a topic and begin to work out a thesis statement. As was suggested in the previous sections, you may choose to describe a particular place.
Sample Thesis Statement: Although Minnesota may seem drab and cold to outsiders, natives of the state find it a wonderful place to live.
We can see in this thesis statement that the writer will attempt to show the aspects of Minnesota that make it a great place to live. After detailing a thesis statement, you should come up with a list of sensory words that provide vivid detail and support the thesis. You may start by thinking about the five senses. How does your particular place look, smell, feel, taste, and sound like? How can you best describe these senses so the reader feels what you feel? By organizing the elements of descriptive language into easier to handle sections, like the five senses, you are able to more specifically engage in what elements of the description are most useful.
Examples of Sensory Words
Examples of Sound Imagery
- Quiet solitude
- Grasshoppers chirping at night
- Trees rustling in the wind
- The howl of a wolf
- Birds singing
- Leaves crunching
- Fire crackling
Examples of Smell Imagery
- Chlorine at a pool
- Freshly cut grass
- Flowers in spring
- Morning dew,
- Freshly baked banana bread,
- Acrid-campfire smoke.
Examples of Touch Imagery
- Cold, wet snowflakes falling on your nose
- Coarse sandpaper
- Rough, dry tree bark
- Wet sand beneath your feet
- Hot pan on the stove
Example of Visual Imagery
- The brilliant rays of sunset
- The churning blue waterfall
- Powerful deer racing across the field
- Clean snow falling softly in the sun
- Corn stalks rustling in the breeze
Examples of Taste Imagery
- Lutefisk or lefsa during the holidays
- Steaming, bitter, black coffee
- Fresh, succulent strawberries
- Crunchy chocolate chip cookies
- Cotton candy, sweetly melting in your mouth
After deciding what senses you wish to invoke, make a list of all the words you wish to include. You should also begin to plan a way to present the information that will drive home the thesis statement in the most profound way.
Order of Presentation
The writer in this case could choose to present the positive aspects of Minnesota in terms of the seasons and weather changes. The details could be presented linearly, starting with spring and going through the winter, highlighting the aspects of each season that most closely support the thesis, that Minnesota is a great place to live.
Prior to starting the essay, give some thought as to whom the audience of your piece will be. Who is going to read the essay, and what effect would you like it to have upon them? An awareness of audience is important to choosing the level of formality you take with your writing. Knowing your audience will also help you distinguish which details to include throughout your essay. Assume that your audience knows very little or nothing about your subject matter, and include details that may seem very obvious to you.
Example Audience: In this particular essay, the writer wants to show an outsider to the state why Minnesota natives are so happy to live there. The essay should help break down stereotypes for those outsiders about Minnesota's cold weather and apparent drabness. Because the essay is designed for those who do not live in Minnesota, and maybe have never been there, it is important to include details about the state that may seem obvious to a native.
With the preparatory work complete, it is time now to begin writing your essay. Use your thesis statement to begin to construct an introductory paragraph. The introduction should set up the basis for your essay, and the thesis statement should state its purpose.
Example Introduction: Many who have not traveled to the state of Minnesota only hear of its cold weather and boring reputation. They are sure missing out on the great opportunities that Minnesota affords. Each season offers different senses that native Minnesotans and tourists know and love. Although Minnesota may seem drab and cold to outsiders, natives of the state find it a wonderful place to live.
With the introduction complete, it is time to start constructing the body paragraphs of your essay. Each body paragraph should have a central theme in itself, and that theme should be represented in a topic sentence. Consequently, each sentence of the paragraph should relate to and support the topic sentence. The body paragraphs are where the majority of the details should be given. When writing the first draft of your descriptive essay, include as many details as is reasonably possible. You can always eliminate the ones that do not serve the essay as well when you are revising your draft. In the case of the Minnesota nature essay, we have decided to set up the body paragraphs in terms of season, starting with spring.
Example Body Paragraph:
Spring in Minnesota brings new life to the state after the long winter season. The rain washes the landscape clean, leaving its fresh aroma for all to enjoy. The flowers soak up the golden sun's rays and begin to show their vibrant colors. The first birds can be seen and heard throughout the woods and fields, telling their stories in beautiful songs. The lakes begin to show their glossy finish as the ice melts away slowly under the heat of the season.
With the body paragraphs complete, it is time to bring the essay to a close with the conclusion. The conclusion should return back to the thesis and provide coherence to the essay. The conclusion should restate the main points of the essay in order to give the reader a final sense of what the essay was meant to portray. There should not be any new material introduced in the conclusion, and the way it is worded should give the reader a sense of finality.
By examining what each of the seasons in Minnesota has to offer, it becomes clear that the state is a truly wonderful place to live or visit. Minnesota is much more than the cold and drab state that many people give it credit for. One visit to the state and anyone can see the great things about Minnesota.
With the essay complete, it is time to reread and revise your essay (also see revision sections of this textbook). Read your first draft and pinpoint all of the descriptor words you used. If possible, go back and add more after the ones you already used in the essay. If you can, read your essay out loud to a friend and have them tell you what images are vivid for them and what images are a little more cloudy. Rework any images that are cloudy with more descriptions. Also check to see if your descriptions have made use of all of the five senses: sound, smell, texture, sight, and taste. Repeat these steps as many times as necessary until you are happy with your product.
A Second Sample Descriptive Essay
- A Brief Guide to Writing Descriptive Essays
- [http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/acadwrite/descriptive.html Checklist of Things to Consider when