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Description

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English

A word paints ten thousand pictures. Haven’t you heard that one? Welcome to the beautiful world of descriptions. Unlike a visual, where the image is seen, a description is where the image is created using words. From auditory to visual, each description paints different images for each of us. An author does have some control over what the reader envisions. There are steps to writing a good description, particularly if you are writing a description in an essay or are writing a descriptive essay.

The Definition and Purpose of a Description

A description uses words to create an image in your mind. It will always be more abstract than a visual because a visual gives you the image directly, the way a movie or picture does. A description gives you an image indirectly, the way a novel or poem does. Visuals are images. Words create images.

The purpose of a description is to narrow the mental distance between you and the subject described. A good description takes you out of your reality and places you in a purely mental reality; in other words, a good description of a mountain would take you to that mountain.

Have you ever read a book so good that you momentarily forgot where you were; instead, you were in the story's world? This book probably had some engrossing descriptions.

A description might be objective, meaning it is limited to the subject's structure. It is factual.

An objective description is one limited to the facts. The resulting image will be less unique to you.

However, often, descriptions are not laborious attempts to do what visuals do so well. Instead, they present you with a subjective image of something.

A subjective description changes depending on who you are. The resulting image will be unique to you.

Even "objective" descriptions are often subjective. Think of it this way. No matter how detailed a writer is—consider J.R.R. Tolkien's epic passages describing forests in The Lord Of The Rings (1955)—your thoughts, memories, and personal preferences as a reader will play a big part in shaping the resulting image.

Description Image Of Forest StudySmarterNot what you were imagining? flaticon.

Descriptions are not limited to places. A description can be of people, objects, and even feelings such as love or concepts such as space. Depending on the medium and the audience, descriptions can also be written differently. The common thread between all descriptions is an image ultimately decided upon by the reader.

Descriptions Using the Five Senses with Examples

Although it serves as an excellent introduction to descriptions, a description doesn’t only create visual images in your mind. It can create auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile images. The five senses are where a writer starts in terms of descriptive writing because the five senses are how we as humans experience the world. Descriptions tap into our memories, experiences, and impressions of the world to create lifelike images in our minds.

Auditory

An auditory image is one concerned with the sound of something.

An auditory image: It croaked like an old gull when she drew the bowstring.

A gull’s cry is recognizable. You are invited to imagine the bowstring sounding like one. You receive the auditory impression that this bow is old or hasn’t been drawn in a while.

Gustatory

A gustatory image is one concerned with the taste of something.

A gustatory image: Yet her nervousness tasted sweet. She was among the eager ones.

Because "sweetness" is a pleasing gustatory image, you are invited to imagine her nervousness as a positive experience.

Olfactory

An olfactory image is one concerned with the smell of something.

An olfactory image: The dock winds sizzled with the tang of salt and dead fish in the afternoon heat.

This place doesn’t smell very good, obviously.

Tactile

A tactile image is one concerned with the feel of something.

A tactile image: The string creased her fingertips until they hurt.

You might know how it feels to have something taut dig into your fingers. This evokes that tactile image. Ouch.

Visual

A visual image is one concerned with the appearance of something.

A visual image: Then she finally let go and watched her arrow fall with hundreds of others: a sudden tropical rain.

You know how it looks when it rains and either know or have an impression of what a sudden tropical storm looks like. You are invited to imagine arrows raining that way.

Together, these descriptions create an image of an eager protagonist, somewhere warm and probably near the sea, who is executing some attack with other archers. Although this is about all you know, your mental image is probably more detailed. The descriptions give you somewhere to start, and your mind fills in the rest.

Finding Descriptions in a Passage

If you need to identify a description in a passage for a test or for research on an essay, begin by isolating any passage that creates an image in your mind. Look for allusions to the five senses, as well as action verbs (to walk, to take, etc.), concrete nouns (nouns perceivable by the five senses, such as a rock), and all forms of adjectives, which as a class describe verbs and nouns.

Identifying the Importance of a Descriptive Passage

Once you have isolated a passage, consider its importance. To do so, start from the bottom up, like this:

  1. What does the description accomplish for the scene? In other words, what effect does this description have on the characters or the story at this moment? What is the intended effect on the reader? Does it set a tone or a mood? Consider how a description helps to establish a setting, a character, or an action.
  2. What does the description accomplish for the chapter, passage, or story? Think about the broader narrative and the author's intent. Does this description shed light on a theme in the chapter, passage, or story? If so, it is likely important.

You should explain how a descriptive passage accomplishes the writer's goal. We have already learned about the purpose of writing a description (the writer's goal) in the abstract. To understand it more concretely—to understand the way a writer thinks and to understand all that a description might accomplish—it will help to write your own description.

Beginning Steps of Writing a Description

With our basic definitions and examples in mind, write some descriptions for yourself.

Consider Your Audience

When writing a description, it is important to consider your audience. If you are writing for young children, your descriptions will be different from those for adults.

When writing a description for children, you will want to use simple sentences and vocabulary. Compound sentences and more difficult vocabulary are on the table when writing for teenagers. When writing for older teens, adults, and other experienced readers, you will enjoy the use of complex sentences, advanced punctuation, and obscure, literary, and poetic vocabulary. Whose thirst is slaked already?

What do You Want Your Audience To Feel?

It is straightforward enough to describe a house structurally. But sometimes, you will want your reader to feel something when you depict an image. You might want to evoke nostalgia or fear in your reader with the house.

Consider where you’re going with your description, and keep a consistent tone. Here, we will describe the same house in two ways: nostalgically and then in a scary way.

Two stories tall, the home glowed among fields that had been plowed for many a golden season. Although much of the paint peeled off the door, and many windows were without glass, you could almost hear a tireless mother calling her children to supper and smell the coming of a bountiful harvest.

Two stories tall, the bones of the old house creaked in the pale yellow field. Its paint was missing from the door, and its windows shattered. Time had not been kind to this place. You could hear the wind gasping through it like a warm contagion.

The house is structurally the same in each description, but the way it is described evokes different feelings in the reader.

description describing a farmhouse in two ways StudySmarterNostalgic or spooky? flaticon.

How Important is Imagery in Your Writing?

If you are writing pastoral poetry, imagery will be necessary because you want to transport your audience to a beautiful rural setting. Imagery won't be as important if you are writing an analytical essay because you want your audience to focus on the analysis. Again, you want descriptions that are consistent with your tone.

The more professional and academic the tone, the less descriptive you will be. Think of essays, scientific papers, emails, and data analyses. You often want your readers to know something rather than feel something.

The more casual and anecdotal the tone, the more descriptive you will be. Think of novels, advertisements, poems, and screenplays. You want your readers to feel something rather than know something.

Writing Descriptions in Your Essay with Examples

In creative writing, your descriptions are based on your style and audience. In an essay, your descriptions are based on necessity and your audience. This section contains tips for writing descriptions in all manner of essays.

Use Descriptions to set the Scene in Your Essay.

For instance, in an argumentative essay, you might use description to establish important conditions for your argument quickly.

The sun scorches the dry, cracked earth in Tucson, Arizona, for over fourteen hours a day on the summer solstice.

If your thesis describes the need for better water reclamation in the American West, this description sets the scene. Your reader begins to paint a picture in their mind of a place desperately hot and in need of relief.

After the tornado, the homes in its path were ruined. Broken wood tangled with children's toys; gas leaks blighted the fresh air; you could hear the sobbing of homeowners.

If your thesis describes the need for improved measures against deadly midwest tornadoes, this description sets the scene. Your reader begins to paint a picture in their mind of a place affected by real human tragedy.

Both descriptions provide a reason to believe that the status quo is bad, prompting the reader to entertain your thesis.

Don’t Use Descriptions to Fill Space in Your Essay

Every part of your essay should support your thesis. While you might use descriptions to add beauty to your poem or help pace your creative story, you are not concerned with beauty in an essay, and your pace should be brisk. J.R.R. Tolkien might ramble through the woods, but you shouldn’t.

If you don’t know whether your description is relevant, try removing it. Do you think your point is weaker than before (because it is missing) or stronger than before (because you move more briskly into your next argument)? Only use description if it is the shortest and strongest way to make your point. Regarding our tornado example, it’s hard to imagine a faster way to show the emotional pain of losing a home than to describe the scene after its destruction.

Use Descriptions Sparingly in Your Essay

Even if your descriptions are strong, you should never use too many. As rhetoric, descriptions appeal more to emotions than to logic. An appeal to emotions can powerfully encapsulate the ramifications of something, but it cannot encapsulate how something works or how to change something.

Essays should vastly appeal to logic. So rather than use description, consider citing evidence or establishing a line of reasoning. A five-page essay might contain one or two poignant descriptions. It’s fine if an essay contains no original descriptions. There are many ways to get the point across, and description is just one tool.

Descriptive essays are the exception to the rule when it comes to the use of descriptions in your essay. The core of a descriptive essay is the subject you are describing. The purpose of your descriptive essay should be a series of powerful descriptions that narrow the mental distance between the subject and your reader. It will examine something closely to give the reader a comprehensive understanding of a topic.

Don’t Rely on a Thesaurus for Your Descriptions

A thesaurus will give you various synonyms for words, which you can then use in your descriptions. But be warned, whether you are looking for nouns, verbs, or adjectives, if you use a word you aren’t very comfortable with, there’s a good chance it will sound strange or incorrect. A thesaurus rarely gives you a perfectly suitable noun for your noun or adjective for your adjective.

For instance, if you look up the word description in the thesaurus, it will output tale among its highly similar nouns. Yet, a description and a tale are so obviously different.

When you use a thesaurus, keep a dictionary handy, and be sure to understand any word that you use. If you aren’t comfortable with a word, stick to words you know. A thesaurus is best when it is jogging your memory, not finding you an unfamiliar word.

Description - Key takeaways

  • A description uses words to create an image in the reader's mind.
  • A subjective description changes depending on who you are. The resulting image will be unique to you. An objective description is limited to facts. The resulting image will not be unique to your understanding.
  • The five kinds of images used in descriptive writing are auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and visual.
  • The more professional and academic the tone, the less descriptive you will be. The more casual and anecdotal the tone, the more descriptive you will be.
  • In an argumentative essay, you might use description to establish important conditions for your argument quickly.

Description

A description is the use of words to create an image in your mind.

Your descriptive essay should be a series of powerful descriptions that narrow the mental distance between the subject and your reader. A descriptive essay explains every detail of a topic.

A descriptive essay contains a series of powerful descriptions (often using the five senses) to help the reader understand a topic. It contains an introduction, body paragraphs to explain each desciption, and a conclusion.

Descriptions can be objective or subjective. Descriptions can also use auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and visual imagery.

Yes. Because a description is an organized method of written communication, it is a kind of rhetoric.

Final Description Quiz

Question

A description uses _____ to create a _____ in your mind.

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Answer

words, image

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of a description?

Show answer

Answer

The purpose of a description is to narrow the mental distance between you and the subject described.

Show question

Question

"An objective description is limited to how something feels."

True or false? 

Show answer

Answer

False. An objective description is limited to the subject's structure. It is factual.

Show question

Question

What is a subjective description?

Show answer

Answer

A subjective description is one that changes depending on who you are. The resulting image will be unique to you.

Show question

Question

What is the problem with calling objective descriptions "objective"?

Show answer

Answer

Even "objective" descriptions are often subjective. No matter how detailed a description is, the reader creates the image. 

Show question

Question

Can feelings and concepts be described using the five senses?

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Answer

Yes. 

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Question

What are the five types of sensory images?

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Answer

Auditory, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and visual.

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Question

"Defeat left a bitter flavor in his mouth" is an example of what kind of sensory imagery?

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Answer

Gustatory

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Question

"Her words felt like a file sanding me down," is an example of what kind of sensory image?

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Answer

Tactile

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Question

"An olfactory image is one concerned with the smell of something."


True or false?

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Answer

True. 

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Question

When writing a description, it is important to consider your _____.

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Answer

audience

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Question

What is an example of a written medium that will probably have few descriptions?

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Answer

An essay, a scientific paper, an email, and a data analysis are some examples.

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Question

"When using a medium with more descriptions, you probably want a reader to know something rather than feel something."


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Should you use descriptions to add much needed length to your essay? 

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Answer

No. Every part of your essay should support your thesis. Excessive descriptions hurt rather than help.

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Question

How is a thesaurus best used?

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Answer

A thesaurus is best when it is jogging your memory, not finding you an unfamiliar word.

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