WRT 120 Syllabus
Lit 165 Syllabus
About the Instructor
Notes for Effective Writing I
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
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
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?
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
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
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).
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
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
with age" uses color-sense of sight (sensory language)
- "as though
a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead
an interesting comparison (figurative language-a smilie)
burning under the dark"-uses color but also heat to make us feel the
hotness of her skin (sensory language)
of ringlets"-touch (sensory language)
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
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:
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
Here's the opening
of "Spring" by Esther Ehrlich (same magazine):
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.
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
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.