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5.4: Descriptive Compositions

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    To Describe is to Illustrate With Words

    Drawing a picture with words is not easy. Think of describing the color red to someone who has no concept of color. What would you say about the color green? You can name several naturally green nouns: grass, leaves, peas, but is it cool or hot? Does it have a calming or stimulating effect? How does the color blue smell? I instantly think of waves or Davidoff's Cool Water cologne. As you venture into the realm of descriptive writing, remember that your primary goal is to bring the world to your reader: how can you make them see, hear, smell, taste, or touch what you experienced through words alone? Seems like a tough task, but there are some considerations to make.

    Show, Don't Just Tell

    Words like antediluvian and bellicose sound nice and all, but they may just confuse most readers, forcing them to ask Alexa or pluck through a dictionary. When writing descriptively, avoid using abstract language and concepts when you can illustrate them by using images that evoke sensory stimulation. Love is abstract, but a fondue date is a concrete expression of love: it shows love. A field of non-specified flowers may smell nice, but a field of corpse flowers would smell like a body farm. Baby oil and olive oil are made for and from different purposes and things. Your reader will appreciate your description of a cypress as opposed to a tree, and the inclusion of an oak in your story instead of a large plant could even symbolize some hidden or nuanced meaning.

    When Writing Descriptively, Think of Film

    Film is a series of moving pictures, and this is why cinema holds such sway in popular culture for more than a century now. Any writer assembles images using words and moves the reader through a desired series of these images (with some sort of narrative attached), just like a director guiding the cameras' lenses through pre-arranged scenes, you have the ability to rehearse, or draft, before your final show, or the final draft of any essay you complete to submit. If you have ever edited a video, even in a platform like Vine (RIP) or TikTok, you understand how a composer works to arrange what they wish the audience to see in the order they wish to see it. This consideration will improve your writing in narrative and descriptive rhetorical modes. Why is it that in horror movies someone always gets offed in the beginning? Well, to reel you in to the central drama: a murderer, or monster, entity, parasite, or virus is afoot. The rest of the film then explores the quest to make the bad thing go away. But all of this structuring, this arranging of the lens, is intentional--make no mistake!

    Example Descriptive Essay: "How Does It Feel to Be a Muslim?" by Hatem Bazian

    About the Author

    Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley

    Photo: The Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley

    Hatem Bazian, Ph.D., has an impressive array of accomplishments and credentials, serving the community as a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley and as one of the founding members of the Islamaphobia Research and Documentation Project, which went on to launch its own scholarly journal. Hailed as one of the most influential Muslims of the 21st century, his description of what it is like to wake up Muslim in the United States is poignant and memorable. The many images and comparisons made in this brief entry to the Berkeley Blog attempts to give names and faces to those who are lost, figuratively or not, in the biased, severely limited, dehumanizing reporting that reaches the average American's eyes and ears.

    Questions for Discussion

    1. Locate the thesis statement of Bazian's piece. If you could take one sentence that sums up the point he is making to put in a social media post, which sentence would you pick?
    2. Differentiate between and define the words Muslim and Islam. How do you personally relate to these terms?
    3. Bazian mentions that the problems he describes are partially "a structural outcome of colonization." How do you interpret this claim?
    4. When Bazian writes, "texts alone do not kill people nor are they capable of firing a single bullet on their own," he is remarking on the power of written words to influence people's actions. What specific texts can you list that have had significant impacts on your own actions or the actions of others? How do people move from reading written words to taking actions based on those words?