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1.1.1: Section Introduction- Describing a Scene or Experience

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    Section Introduction- Describing a Scene or Experience

    This morning, as I was brewing my coffee before rushing to work, I found myself hurrying up the stairs back to the bedroom, a sense of urgency in my step. I opened the door and froze—what was I doing? Did I need something from up here? I stood in confusion, trying to retrace the mental processes that had led me here, but it was all muddy.

    It’s quite likely that you’ve experienced a similarly befuddling situation. This phenomenon can loosely be referred to as automatization: because we are so constantly surrounded by stimuli, our brains often go on autopilot. (We often miss even the most explicit stimuli if we are distracted, as demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla study.)

    Automatization is an incredibly useful skill—we don’t have the time or capacity to take in everything at once, let alone think our own thoughts simultaneously—but it’s also troublesome. In the same way that we might run through a morning ritual absentmindedly, like I did above, we have also been programmed to overlook tiny but striking details: the slight gradation in color of cement on the bus stop curb; the hum of the air conditioner or fluorescent lights; the weight and texture of a pen in the crook of the hand. These details, though, make experiences, people, and places unique. By focusing on the particular, we can interrupt automatization1. We can become radical noticers by practicing good description.

    In a great variety of rhetorical situations, description is an essential rhetorical mode. Our minds latch onto detail and specificity, so effective description can help us experience a story, understand an analysis, and nuance a critical argument. Each of these situations requires a different kind of description; this chapter focuses on the vivid, image-driven descriptive language that you would use for storytelling.

    Chapter Vocabulary
    Vocabulary Definition
    constraint-based writing a writing technique by which an author tries to follow a rule or set of rules in order to create more experimental or surprising content, popularized by the Oulipo school of writers.
    description a rhetorical mode that emphasizes eye-catching, specific, and vivid portrayal of a subject. Often integrates imagery and thick description to this end.
    defamiliarization a method of reading, writing, and thinking that emphasizes the interruption of automatization. Established as “остранение” (“estrangement”) by Viktor Shklovsky, defamiliarization attempts to turn the everyday into the strange, eye-catching, or dramatic.
    ethnography a study of a particular culture, subculture, or group of people. Uses thick description to explore a place and its associated culture.
    figurative language language which implies a meaning that is not to be taken literally. Common examples include metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole.
    imagery sensory language; literal or figurative language that appeals to an audience’s imagined sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste.
    thick description economical and deliberate language which attempts to capture complex subjects (like cultures, people, or environments) in written or spoken language. Coined by anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Gilbert Ryle.

    This page titled 1.1.1: Section Introduction- Describing a Scene or Experience is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Shane Abrams (PDXOpen publishing initiative) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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