Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

4.4: Description

  • Page ID
    7148
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    At its most basic, description deals with the details, both physical characteristics and intangible qualities, of your object or place. It is also trickier than it looks because more is involved than “painting a picture” with words. It is much more effective to allow the reader to experience the object or place in the same way we do. Fortunately, there are steps to take to do both.

    1. Draft a description

    Write a description of your object or place (just to get started):

    My sock is fuzzy and black. It is flat and slightly stretched out around the ankle. It is faded on the heel and ball.

    If for some reason your object or place is very small and there is not much to describe, start with as many physical characteristics you can and describe them; then “move” to a description of surrounding objects or environment:

    It is stuck to my shirt, which is fuzzy and green. The shirt is made out of the same material towels are made from. It has little “epaulets” on the shoulders like military uniforms. They are attached to the shirt and button down.

    2. List physical characteristics

    Now make a separate list of at least twenty words that describe the physical characteristics of your object/place (list these on scratch paper or separately in a document – you may use ones you already have), like:

    I already have:

    • fuzzy
    • black
    • flat
    • stretched out
    • faded
    • green
    • stuck
    • epaulets
    • military uniforms
    • button down

    Here are some new ones:

    • soft
    • crumpled
    • worn out
    • thin
    • ribbed top
    • cylindrical
    • shabby
    • laundered
    • fresh
    • clingy
    3. Put into categories

    Notice that the list above, and likely your list as well, contains descriptive words that fall into different categories, like “epaulets” (the name of the part of a shirt that attaches to the shoulder) and “black” (obviously a color). Again, on scratch paper, make the following category column headings:

    Parts Color Size Shape Texture Other senses Function
    Now place the words on your first list under each appropriate category:
    Parts
    \(\downarrow\)
    Color
    \(\downarrow\)
    Size
    \(\downarrow\)
    Shape
    \(\downarrow\)
    Texture
    \(\downarrow\)
    Other senses
    \(\downarrow\)
    Function
    \(\downarrow\)
    • epaulets
    • ribbed top
    • green
    • faded
    • black
    • cylindrical
    • military uniforms
    • stretched out
    • flat
    • crumpled
    • clingy
    • shabby
    • thin
    • worn out
    • soft
    • fuzzy
    • fresh
    • laundered
    • stuck
    • button down

    Make sure that you have at least three words from each category on your list:

    • at least 3 size words
    • at least 3 shape words
    • at least 3 color words
    • at least 3 texture words
    • at least 3 words that describe its parts
    • at least 3 words that describe its functions
    • at least 1 words each that describes other sensory characteristics (smell, sound, taste, touch)

    Note that I will have to add descriptive words to my Parts, Size, and Function categories to add up to 3 for each.

    4. Specific Subcategories

    Working from your list that now includes at least 3 words from the categories above, list alternate words from at least two possible subcategories (that is, words that are much more specific). For example, if a "size" category word on your list is "large," a more specific word or words might be "six feet deep" and "two inches tall;" for a category color like "red," try "magenta" and "crimson;" for a category part like "top" try "capital" and "finial;" and so on.

    The color words from the list above:

    green
    \(\downarrow\)
    faded
    \(\downarrow\)
    black
    ​​​​​​​\(\downarrow\)
    More specific subcategories:
    • emerald
    • sage
    • jade
    • bleached
    • dull
    • pale
    • ebony
    • charcoal
    • sooty

    Do this with as many words in each category as possible.

    Adjectives

    Can I just add adjectives, like ‘grassy green’ and ‘jet black’ to the words I already have?

    Yes. However, for this exercise, try replacing general categories with specific categories and sometimes your descriptions become much more effective. The reason for this is the tendency of English words to move from one functional category to another functional category. For example:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    The clown dropped an emerald into his pocket. (“emerald” functions as a noun)

    He wore an emerald blouse with pink polka-dots. (“emerald” functions as an adjective)

    You can say “emerald-green blouse,” but you have to ask yourself whether adding the general category word to the specific is worth the redundancy or not. It could be that you want to emphasize the “green-ness” of something, in which case the addition of “green” to “emerald” is justified. Try both.

    5. Rewrite with subcategory and additional words

    Now put all of your subcategory (specific) words into a series of complete sentences. Experiment with mixing different categories in the same sentence. Add into your original description:

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    My sock is cylindrical, dull, bleached, and sooty. It is flat and slightly stretched out around the crumpled ankle. Even though fresh and laundered, it is faded charcoal on the shabby heel and worn-out ball. It is stuck to my emerald shirt, which has diminutive, sage and jade-splotched “epaulets” on the shoulders like the ones on military uniforms. They are attached to the shirt and button down.

    6. Descriptive verbs

    One characteristic of description is that it uses the most powerful (in grammatical terms) words to express images. Usually we think of adjectives when we describe something. However, verbs carry more information than adjectives, adverbs, or any other part of speech. Adjectives "modify" or change slightly nouns; verbs carry raw information. That means that we must try to shift as much meaning to verbs as we can from adjectives. Here is how we do this:

    Underline all the verbs in your description.

    Look for forms of the verbs "to be" (is, was, were, been, being, is, am, are, will be) and "to have" (have, had, has, will have), even if they are auxiliary verbs.

    Change them to action verbs (you may have to rewrite the sentence). Try to look at what the adjectives are trying to say.

    Here is my description from above with the verbs highlighted:

    My sock is cylindrical, dull, bleached, and sooty. It is flat and slightly stretched out around the crumpled ankle. Even though fresh and laundered, it is faded charcoal on the shabby heel and worn-out ball. It is stuck to my emerald shirt, which has diminutive, sage and jade-splotched “epaulets” on the shoulders like the ones on military uniforms. They are attached to the shirt and button down.

    Notice that every verb except one is some form of the verb “to be.” I want to change the “beverbs” to verbs that somehow reflect or indicate something about the sock, or reflect or indicate what the sock does or is doing. Here is the first sentence:

    My sock is cylindrical, dull, bleached, and sooty.

    I want to somehow show what the sock does as opposed to what it is. What can it do? It can hang from my shirt. It can cover or protect my foot. It can wrap around my ankle. It can complement my other attire. It can stretch over my foot. Let me try one of those:

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\):

    My sock hangs cylindrical, dull, bleached, and sooty across the front of my shirt.

    Notice how we have put some characteristic of the sock into the verb as well as in the adjectives. Note, too, the difference.

    Let’s try another sentence:

    Example \(\PageIndex{4}\):

    It is flat and slightly stretched out around the crumpled ankle.

    Can be changed to:

    Example \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    It lies flat and slightly stretched out around the crumpled ankle.

    Continue with your sentences until you have eliminated all “be-verbs.”

    Can I change the sentences while I go along?

    Yes. In fact, if you don’t find yourself making lots of changes, you are probably not taking all of this seriously.

    7. Long sentences

    Have you ever been assigned a long reading, like a novel, and gotten a little behind? You probably noticed that “description” is made up of long sentences in longer paragraphs, which you skipped. You might have skipped over to the dialogue or action because the sentences were shorter.

    There is a reason for this frustration with description – if you are in a hurry. One of the characteristics of description is that it slows the reader down somewhat, so he or she can "smell the roses," so to speak. It accomplishes this by long, flowing sentences that are full of words that are rich in sounds and experiences and meanings. These long, meaning-rich sentences and paragraphs slow you down purposefully; if you are in a hurry, you miss many meaningful details, much like speeding down the highway without noticing what is around you. You want your reader to slow down for description. Long sentences slow the reader down.

    You should now have a number of sentences. Look at your sentences and combine some of them so that your sentences are long and flowing. At this point, there should be few, if any, short ones.

    Example \(\PageIndex{6}\):

    My sock hangs cylindrical, dull, bleached, and sooty from the front of my favorite, most comfortable shirt and lies flat and slightly stretched out, though tighter and pale around the crumpled ankle. Even though fresh and laundered, it sits faded and charcoal, with the shabby heel and worn-out ball on my emerald shirt, which sports diminutive, sage and jade-splotched epaulets on the shoulders like the ones on military uniforms. These epaulets rest atop the shoulders of the shirt and button down.

    It may not be literary genius, but it conforms to basic rules of description. Compare the first description of the sock (number 1) with the one above. Combine sentences to make your description slow the reader down.

    Now make a list of five intangible qualities that describes your object/place. Follow the process above to develop four of these qualities (refer to your Topic Writing). Put them into a series of sentences and add to the rest of the description. Save one of the qualities for the next step.

    8. Negative description

    A principle in the graphic arts is the control of “negative space.” This is the space in a painting, for example, where nothing is present except the space itself. The idea is that space, even though it appears “empty,” still exercises control over a composition. An easy example is the “negative space” (which we would simply call “spaces”) on this page. It is necessary to separate each word with a space, and each paragraph with space, and so on.

    We can apply this principle to description in one way by describing what something is not. One way to do this is by simply adding three new sentences to the end of our description. Each sentence should contain the words (or words to the effect of) "is not" (they can break the "beverb" rule). In other words, each sentence should roughly be structured like this:

    ____________ is not ______________.

    ____________ is not ______________.

    ____________ is not ______________.

    To do this, read through your entire description and decide what your reader might misunderstand or mistake about your object or place, based on your description. Try to anticipate what "blanks" or “spaces” of meaning he or she might fill in. Then describe what your object/place is not, based on what you read. Put into separate sentences, use the formula above, and do not use contractions.

    A final sentence should be added to the end of your negative description to reaffirm what your abject is. Use a quality from the list of intangible qualities that you made in the previous section:

    It is______________________.

    Now try putting into three sentences separate negative space descriptions and one final sentence that contains an intangible quality.

    Right: The tree is not necessarily something I think about much anymore, except when I happen to be sitting under a pecan on a hot day. It is not my tree; it does not belong to me. It is not as special to anyone else as it is to me whenever I think about it, or at least I don't think so. It is, however, one more reminder of the importance of “place” in our lives.

    Wrong: The tree is not a spaceship, it is not a cigar, and it is not my aunt; it's just a tree for crying out loud.

    That is a lousy sentence that breaks all of the above rules.

    Example \(\PageIndex{7}\): A Correct Example

    That sock is no longer wearable. I do not think about the sock much anymore, except when I see someone driving along with a coffee-mug or briefcase on top of the car or someone lecturing a class with a mis-buttoned shirt or tripping wildly while crossing the street. No longer do I rush out late to important “firsts” without first checking the mirror for errant socks. However, whenever I come across a single faded black sock clinging to an article of clothing in the closet, I think about how seriously we sometimes take ourselves.

    Add these sentences to your description. 

    9. Tropes

    Tropes are sometimes called figures of speech. These are sentence-level patterns that add a three-dimensional quality to a description. This is accomplished by repeating the same principle in both what is being said and how it is being said. The purpose of tropes is to emphasize something in your description. This is accomplished in many ways, but here are some of the most effective:

    Onomatopoeia

    Onomatopoeia is the principle that sounds made by an object or in a place, or sounds you wish associated somehow with an object or place, are reflected in the language being used. This can be accomplished in several ways.

    For example, I want to describe something about the tree used in an example above. I think about what sort of sounds might be associated with trees and decide that the sound made by a breeze blowing through a tree’s branches and leaves is something I want to emphasize. I come to the conclusion that words with consonant “s” and “sh” sounds in them most closely resemble the sound I want the reader to hear while describing a tree or a breeze blowing through its branches.

    Repeating the same sound (not necessarily the same letter) at the beginning of three or more words (technically words with at least two syllables) in the same phrase or sentence is called alliteration.

    Example \(\PageIndex{8}\):

    Softly the wind sighs through supple young saplings.

    I want to further emphasize the sounds of wind with vowel sounds like “oo” and “ah” rather than harsher-sounding long vowels. Assonance is repeating similar vowel sounds in three or more words in the same phrase or sentence.

    Example \(\PageIndex{9}\):

    Softly the cool wind sighs through supple young saplings.

    Simile

    Another way to emphasize both what is being said and how it is being said is through implicit and explicit comparisons.

    “Comparing” one thing to another should conjure up for most readers a side-by-side image of two similar (or dissimilar) things. In simile, this is exactly the case, but it is emphasized in the explicitly side-by-side pattern of simile itself:

    _______________ is like ______________.

    The images on either side of “is like” are reinforced by the explicit image on the page of the simile itself.

    Example \(\PageIndex{10}\):

    Softly the cool wind sighs through supple young saplings like whispers of frightened children.

    Remember that you may use such comparison techniques for emphasis, and so you should use them sparingly for maximum impact. Comparison in general works better if you compare something familiar to the reader (in this case the whispers of frightened children) to the object you are describing.

    Metaphor

    When asked what a metaphor is, most people say “a comparison without using ‘like’ or ‘as,’” which is correct. Unfortunately, that description does not help us construct a metaphor. A better description, at least for a writer, is the expression of one thing in terms of another. The effect is not side-by-side, like it is for simile, but more “one on top of the other,” or “at the same time,” or “one within the other,” and so on.

    To achieve this effect, we must still reinforce the “side-by-side-ness” of comparison by looking at the two main functions of statements: to tell us what the subject is and to tell us what that subject does or did; in other words, we may use the built-in two-part system of subject/verb that we expect in most statements:

    Subject Verb  
    \(\downarrow\) \(\downarrow\)  
    That cat purrs and nuzzles me while I am reading

    However, this statement is not a metaphor, because it expresses one thing (a cat) in terms of the same thing (what a cat does or how a cat is). We are familiar with what a cat is and what a cat does.

    Using the subject/verb pattern, I can build a metaphor by beginning with a simile that describes something unfamiliar by putting it next to something familiar:

    Unfamiliar   Familiar
    \(\downarrow\)   \(\downarrow\)
    My thoughts are all jumbled up like the clothes in a dryer.

    This is a perfectly acceptable simile. However, I want to make it a metaphor by expressing one thing in terms of another – in this case my thoughts in terms of clothes in a dryer or laundry. In other words, how can I express the subject “thoughts” using verbs that describe “clothes in a dryer”:

    Example \(\PageIndex{11}\):

    My thoughts tumbled in my head, gently easing wrinkles from problems past, warmed by memories of you, evaporating slowly, one into another, until they pile out into daydreams that I fold and stack away for another day.

    Perhaps a little overdone (no pun intended), but you should see from this process the ease with which to construct a metaphor in this way.

    Personification

    Once we master the construction of a metaphor, we may construct a personification, which is expressing a thing (that is not a person) in terms of a person or a living thing, in the same way.

    What is expressed, and in what terms, below?

    The trees stood guard along the water, at rapt attention and silent, sentries on lookout duty for the spirit of the lake.

    In this case, all we have to do is separate the subject from the verb and the words used to clarify the verb, and we see that “trees” are expressed in terms of “standing guard,” “at rapt attention,” and “on lookout duty.”

    Add one of each of these tropes to your description. Your description may sound overdone in places, but you should practice each of these for use later on, perhaps in different places, in your essay.

    You may describe any object or place this way. When you have a description constructed, you may add it to the other elements in your personal writing. When you finish ALL the elements, you may then arrange elements for greatest effect.

    • Was this article helpful?