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7.1: The Purpose of Description in Writing

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  • Writers use description in writing to make sure that their audience is fully immersed in the words on the page. This requires a concerted effort by the writer to describe his or her world through the use of sensory details.

    Sensory details are descriptions that appeal to our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Your descriptions should try to focus on the five senses because we all rely on these senses to experience the world. The use of sensory details, then, provides you the greatest possibility of relating to your audience and thus engaging them in your writing, making descriptive writing important not only during your education but also during everyday situations.

    Figurative Language

    Figurative language is non-literal language used to further clarify an idea or image. Two common types of figures of speech are similes and metaphors. They both involve comparisons. They help us to better understand or visualize by comparing an unknown to a known. We use similes and metaphors all the time, probably without even realizing it. For instance, if a friend told you that her brother just bought a used Dodge Charger that is “the ugliest green,” you would be on your own to guess what “ugliest green” meant. However, if the friend said, “My brother just bought an ugly old Dodge Charger; it looks like a bruised Granny Smith apple,” you would have a much clearer picture of the car’s color, and because she also included “bruised,” you would also picture rust spots. Similes and metaphors add precision.

    Simile: comparing essentially unlike things using the words “like,” “than,” or “as.”

    • “The mound of chocolate dropped like a horrible turd upon my bedspread” (from David Sedaris’s “Us and Them”).
    • Her skin was rougher than burlap.
    • His shattered nose had grown as big as a ripe plum.

    Metaphor: a comparison between otherwise dissimilar things without using the words “like,” “than,” or “as.”

    • “He’s a human being, but also he’s a pig, surrounded by trash and gorging himself so that others may be denied” (from David Sedaris’s “Us and Them”).
    • The traffic bled out of the city’s major arteries.


    Avoid mixing metaphors

    • He barked out the commands and hissed at our incompetence. (Is he a dog or a snake?)
    • Better: He barked out the commands and growled at our incompetence. (He is clearly an angry dog.)

    Exercise 1

    If you already have a narrative or descriptive essay assignment, come up with one simile and one metaphor about someone or something in your essay. If you are not currently working on an assignment, come up with one simile and one metaphor about someone or something within ten feet of where you are now. Use figurative language to clarify an image or idea.

    Simile example clarifying an image: Uncle Beer Truck’s belly didn’t just jiggle as he jogged toward me; it bounced like a tough-skinned water balloon against his giant Burlington Northern belt buckle.

    Metaphor example clarifying an idea: Grandma was the anchor that kept the family from drifting toward life’s waterfalls.

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