West Chester University

Fall 2002

West Chester University

Spring 2002

Fall 2001





Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assignments
  LIT 165 Announcements
  Lit 165 Assignments


Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join an Online Forum
  WRT 120 Composition Forum
  LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum

~~ Writing Descriptively ~~

You recall that "rhetoric" is the art (or science, we're not sure!) of speaking and writing effectively, and that description is one of many rhetorical strategies available for achieving that purpose. Description is the strategy you use when you want to make an experience vivid for readers; it's an invitation for them to share or participate in your world. This is the kind of language you incorporate in an essay-especially an expressive essay-when you want your readers to vividly imagine something, someone, or some place. If you want to make an event, a place, or a person that is real to you just as real to your reader, you know you're trying to write descriptively.

Your power as a writer who can describe things rests on your ability to use evocative language. The words you choose are your only tools for making something, some place, someone seem real in your reader's imagination. Of course, readers have to extend their open minds, and use their imaginations-which is very gracious of them. So when you have all of those willing imaginations dangling before you, make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity to impress them!

A few pointers…

  • "Show don't tell." Or, at the very least, "show and tell." That's the golden rule. When you want to make us visualize, imagine something, don't use "telling" words (which are usually very abstract). Rather than "tell" your readers that Mr. Hause could get angry at the class sometimes, show his anger in a vivid recreation of what it looked, sounded, felt like. "When we fell short of his expectations for one reason or another, Mr. Hause used to pound his fist angrily into the desk, his frustration filling the room with a hollow thud." You might even include the words he shouted to the back of the wall, or whispered in that quiet, controlled rage that was more terrifying that anything else. Maybe his face was knotted in a frown…Description shows us these things, lingering over significant details that help create a vivid impression.
  • Choose details that contribute to a dominant impression. You can't describe everything about a scene-that would be wordy and cumbersome. You have to choose wisely. Good writing always seems concise and right to the point, so pick your details carefully. What's the general impression you're trying to create? Choose only those details that will contribute to this impression! If Mr. Hause paused and adjusted his tie, we don't have to know about it because it doesn't contribute to creating the impression of his anger.
  • Choose your words carefully. Your words can make a lasting impression if you use language that is sensory (appeals to the five senses-sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), figurative (colorful similes, metaphors, analogies), connotative (has a positive or negative charge instead of being neutral), specific and concrete (because you used vivid, evocative words-not vague or abstract ones).

Descriptive Language in Action

Language that appeals to our senses-sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell-makes us feel like we're right there participating in the subject of your essay. To clarify what's meant by "sensory" language, consider this passage from Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." The writer is trying hard to get you to visualize the character (Phoenix Jackson) exactly as she does….

Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.

  • "Blue with age" uses color-sense of sight (sensory language)
  • "as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead…"-uses an interesting comparison (figurative language-a smilie)
  • "yellow burning under the dark"-uses color but also heat to make us feel the hotness of her skin (sensory language)
  • "frailest of ringlets"-touch (sensory language)
  • "odor like copper"-smell (sensory language)

Notice, too, how this author chooses those details that create a positive impression. What makes you feel good about this person? Don't you feel good about this person? How did the writer's language achieve that? The connotative power of words is at work here.

More Examples of Description

Now consider these selected passages (from an issue of one of my favorite magazines, The Sun).

This is the opening of "Body Bright" by Scott Russell Sanders:

It would be hard to imagine a setting less wild than the interior of a subway car rumbling through tunnels beneath city streets. The city happened to be London, but you could not have guessed that from glancing at the passengers. There we sat on plastic benches, forty-two of us by my count, every shade of the human rainbow in every sort of get-up, from sari to suit, reading newspapers and books, listening to earphones, clutching bags and briefcases and backpacks, our shod feet shuffling on the rubber floor while lights flickered overhead, wheels groaned below, and a nasal loudspeaker voice called out the names of stations. Although my watch told me it was 9 a.m. on July 1, nothing in the Underground revealed whether it was day or night, summer or winter. The smeared windows gave back our own reflections. I was headed to the British Museum, but for all I could see, our subway car might have been a spaceship rocketing to the stars.

The passage above is inviting readers to use their imaginations but is helping them arrive at a specific place-a full subway car underneath London. Notice the specific word choices he makes-the "rumbling" car, the "plastic benches," the "human rainbow" (a nice metaphor), the "saris" and the "suits," etc. Concrete language is employed to help place you right there.

Here's the opening of "Spring" by Esther Ehrlich (same magazine):

Outside my window, sparrows confer in the bottle-brush tree. Amid the tangled branches newly leafed in brilliant green, they chirp about important matters while a hummingbird hovers around the edges, sipping at frizzy red fronds. The winter rains have finally ended, and everything feels washed-clean and ready. Even the dried insect wing stuck to my window screen quivers with excitement.

This is what my mother, in the end, couldn't bear: the forward rush of possibility, the hum of new life buzzing in the air as winter opens to spring. Surrounded by such sweet promise, she felt as empty as a footprint pressed in dried mud.

This show don't tell presentation allows the reader to participate, which is what we want to do when we read. Just telling us that it was spring, without showing us spring, will sound too general, abstract. You won't be in control over what pops up into your readers' minds.






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