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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
~~ How to Write 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
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
us these things, lingering over significant details that help create a vivid
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 .
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
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:
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):
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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