1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

description

By

description

Description is one of the progymnasmata and one of the traditional modes of discourse.

Definition:

A rhetorical strategy using sensory details to portray a person, place, or thing.

Description is used in many different types of nonfiction, including biographies, memoirs, nature writing, profiles, sports writing, and travel writing. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

See also:

Descriptive Paragraphs and Essays

Etymology:

From the Latin, "to write down"

Examples and Observations:

  • Show; Don't Tell
    "This is the oldest cliché of the writing profession, and I wish I didn't have to repeat it. Do not tell me that the Thanksgiving dinner was cold. Show me the grease turning white as it congeals around the peas on your plate. . . . Think of yourself as a movie director. You have to create the scene that the viewer will relate to physically and emotionally."
    (David R. Williams, Sin Boldly!: Dr. Dave's Guide To Writing The College Paper. Basic Books, 2009)


  • Selecting Details
    "The descriptive writer's main task is the selection and verbal representation of information. You must choose the details that matter--that are important to the purposes you share with your readers--as well as a pattern of arrangement relevant to those mutual purposes. . . .

    "Description can be an engineer describing the terrain where an embankment must be built, a novelist describing a farm where the novel will take place, a realtor describing a house and land for sale, a journalist describing a celebrity's birthplace, or a tourist describing a rural scene to friends back home. That engineer, novelist, realtor, journalist, and tourist may all be describing the very same place. If each is truthful, their descriptions will not contradict each other. But they will certainly include and emphasize different aspects."
    (Richard M. Coe, Form and Substance. Wiley, 1981)


  • Chekhov's Advice to a Young Writer
    "In my opinion, descriptions of nature should be extremely brief and offered by the way, as it were. Give up commonplaces, such as: 'the setting sun, bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, flooded with purple gold,' and so on. Or 'swallows flying over the surface of the water chirped gaily.' In descriptions of nature one should seize upon minutiae, grouping them so that when, having read the passage, you close your eyes, a picture is formed. For example, you will evoke a moonlit night by writing that on the mill dam the glass fragments of a broken bottle flashed like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled along like a ball.'"
    (Anton Chekhov, quoted by Raymond Obstfeld in Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. Writer's Digest Books, 2000)


  • Two Types of Description: Objective and Impressionistic
    "Objective description attempts to report accurately the appearance of the object as a thing in itself, independent of the observer's perception of it or feelings about it. It is a factual account, the purpose of which is to inform a reader who has not been able to see with his own eyes. The writer regards himself as a kind of camera, recording and reproducing, though in words, a true picture. . . .

    "Impressionistic description is very different. Focusing upon the mood or feeling the object evokes in the observer rather than upon the object as it exists in itself, impressionism does not seek to inform but to arouse emotion. It attempts to make us feel more than to make us see. . . . "[T]he writer may blur or intensify the details he selects, and, by the clever use of figures of speech, he may compare them to things calculated to evoke the appropriate emotion. To impress us with the dreary ugliness of a house, he may exaggerate the drabness of its paint or metaphorically describe the flaking as leprous."
    (Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes, 6th ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 1986)


  • Lincoln's Objective Self-Description
    "If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and gray eyes--no other marks or brands recollected."
    (Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Jesse W. Fell, 1859)


  • Rebecca Harding Davis's Impressionistic Description of a Smoky Town
    "The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river--clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street, have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides. Here, inside, is a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted and black. Smoke everywhere! A dirty canary chirps desolately in a cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream--almost worn out, I think."
    (Rebecca Harding Davis, "Life in the Iron Mills." The Atlantic Monthly, April 1861)


  • Lillian Ross's Description of Ernest Hemingway
    "Hemingway had on a red plaid wool shirt, a figured wool necktie, a tan wool sweater-vest, a brown tweed jacket tight across the back and with sleeves too short for his arms, gray flannel slacks, Argyle socks, and loafers, and he looked bearish, cordial, and constricted. His hair, which was very long in back, was gray, except at the temples, where it was white; his mustache was white, and he had a ragged half-inch, full white beard. There was a bump about the size of a walnut over his left eye. He had on steel-rimmed spectacles, with a piece of paper under the nose-piece. He was in no hurry to get to Manhattan."
    (Lillian Ross, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?" The New Yorker, May 13, 1950)


  • Description of a Handbag
    "Three years ago at a flea market, I bought a small, white-beaded handbag, which I have never since carried in public but which I would never dream of giving away. The purse is small, about the size of a paperback bestseller, and thus it is totally unsuited for lugging around such paraphernalia as a wallet, comb, compact, checkbook, keys, and all the other necessities of modern life. Hundreds of tiny pearl-colored beads dot the outside of the handbag, and on the front, woven into the design, is a starburst pattern formed by larger, flat beads. Creamy white satin lines the inside of the bag and forms a small pocket on one side. Inside the pocket someone, perhaps the original owner, has scrawled the initials "J.W." in red lipstick. At the bottom of the purse is a silver coin, which reminds me of my teenage years when my mother warned me never to go out on a date without a dime in case I had to telephone home for help. In fact, I think that's why I like my white beaded handbag: it reminds me of the good old days when men were men and ladies were ladies."
    (Lorie Roth, "My Handbag")


  • Bill Bryson's Description of the Residents' Lounge in the Old England Hotel
    "The room was casually strewn with aging colonels and their wives, sitting amid carelessly folded Daily Telegraphs. The colonels were all shortish, round men with tweedy jackets, well-slicked silvery hair, an outwardly gruff manner that concealed within a heart of flint, and, when they walked, a rakish limp. Their wives, lavishly rouged and powdered, looked as if they had just come from a coffin fitting."
    (Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island. William Morrow, 1995)


  • Stronger Than Death
    "Great description shakes us. It fills our lungs with the life of its author. Suddenly he sings within us. Someone else has seen life as we see it! And the voice that fills us, should the writer be dead, bridges the gulf between life and death. Great description is stronger than death."
    (Donald Newlove, Painted Paragraphs. Henry Holt, 1993)
Pronunciation: di-SKRIP-shun

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.