Supplimentary Reading for Description 

From Thinking in Writing by McQuade and Atwan. New York, 1980, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher. This handout is only for the reference value and use of students in COCC writing course .


[This exerpt begins on page 104 and ends on page 109]

3 ...Suppose that we've been asked to write an essay in which we discuss the one room we regard as the center of our lives at home. From among several possibilities, we choose to focus on the kitchen. Although we may well want to tell our readers about the important events that happen there (that is, to use narration), we might first want to create an accurate picture of what the kitchen looks like. Describing in detail the physical appearance of the room, its contents, and perhaps even some of the people who regularly use it would help our audience recreate the special liveliness we associate with the kitchen. We could, for example, lead our readers around the room, describing each of its features in enough detail and in clear enough sequence for them to capture a vivid sense of the distinctive sights, sounds, smells, and activities identified with it. To do so would be to rely on description as the key rhetorical element in the success of such an essay.

4 In addition to portraying verbally the physical characteristics of a person, place, or object, description can also be used to recreate an idea, an emotion, a quality, or a mood. In the case of the kitchen, our description might include attention to the ways in which the mood in the kitchen changes at various times of the day and the year. Think of the extended description we could write focusing on the kitchen in the midst of the daily routines that distinguish, say, breakfast from lunch and dinner or of the richness of detail associated with such special occasions as a birthday, Thanksgiving, and the New Year. Our efforts to describe an abstraction like the "holiday spirit" of a room depend finally on our ability to gather concrete illustrations of it. In this instance, we could undoubtedly point to the number of visitors at the house, the variety of food served, the smell of special cooking, the pile of dishes in the sink, and so on. (For a thorough discussion of this procedure for thinking and writing, see "Abstract and Concrete," p. 75.) In all such instances-whether we are picturing something concrete (the furniture or appliances in the kitchen) or something abstract (the spirit in the room during a holiday)-the process of writing an effective description remains essentially the same. We should start with an overview of whatever we want to describe. We should then proceed to select the most striking and significant details and develop them in an intelligible sequence that produces the effect we intended to create.

5 Basically, there are two kinds of description: objective and subjective. Although descriptive prose falls somewhere between these extremes, combining both in some distinctive proportion, it is useful to keep the following general distinctions in mind. Objective description is primarily factual, omitting any attention to the writer. Subjective description includes attention to both the subject described and the writer's reactions to it. For example, we could objectively z, describe the cost of traveling air coach from Los Angeles to New York as $149; writing subjectively, we might say that the price of the trip was "a great bargain." The focus in the first is on the fact, in the second on the way the writer responds to the fact. Or, we might objectively describe a particular automobile as a 1956 cream and gold DeSoto with a push-button transmission and long fins for rear fenders. A more subjective description might add that the car is an "enormous chunk of nostalgia." (For a masterly blending of objective and subjective description, see Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth," p. 125.) Purpose and audience determine whether we ought to use primarily objective or primarily subjective description. Before deciding which form is the more appropriate for an essay, we should ask ourselves, "What is this description-being used for?" and "Who is going to read it?"

6Writers use objective description whenever they want to make an partial presentation of observable facts. Objective description is personal prose, as literal and matter-of-fact as possible. The following passage exemplifies the essential features of an objective description:

The kitchen table is rectangular, seventy-two inches long and thirty inches wide. Made of a two-inch-thick piece of oak, its top is covered with a waxy oilcloth patterned in dark red and blue squares against a white background. In the right corner, close to the wall, a square blue ceramic tile serves as the protective base for a brown earthenware tea pot. A single white place mat has been set to the left of the tile, with a knife and fork on either side of a white dinner plate. On the plate are two thick pieces of chicken.

The emphasis here is quite clearly on the presentation of information. Observable facts are conveyed in a detached tone of voice and in simple, relatively short sentences. The focus in the passage is on the objects, not on the writer's responses to them. Accordingly, the sentences rely on nouns and adjectives, rather than verbs, to carry the description. Equal attention is paid to each item in the description. Also, the writer concentrates on the denotative meanings of works--that is, on their dictionary meanings. While the passage involves several sense impressions (the objects have particular shapes and tactile properties, and a few even convey odors), the sense of sight dominates this objective description-and most others as well. Objective description reminds us of the need for the visual element in writing. Yet there is a static quality to this kind of description. The objects are described as simply "being there"-as though they were reflected in a mirror.

7 Besides being the substance of most scientific and technical writing, objective description is also a distinguishing feature of professional brochures, catalogs, and reports. In college life, objective description appears most frequently in textbooks, encyclopedias, reference books, science papers, departmental course guides, and in the classified ads that crowd the back pages of student newspapers and the walls of campus bookstores.

8 Writers use subjective description  whenever they want to convey their personal interpretations of an object, place, person, or state of mind. In subjective description, there is as much emphasis on the writer's feelings, as there is on what is being described. Since subjective description is impressionistic, it is likely to depend on strong verbs, forceful modifiers, and graphic figures of speech-language that signals the writer's feelings about what is being described. Though it may lack some of the technical precision of objective description, it usually, makes a more immediate and dramatic appeal 'to our senses. Here is a subjective description of that same kitchen table:

Our lives at home converged around the kitchen table. It was a magnet that drew our family together. Cut from the toughest oak, the table was sturdy, smooth, arid long enough for my mother, my two sisters, and me to work or play on at the same time. Our favorite light-blue. ceramic tile stationed in the right corner, was the table's sole defense against the ravages of everything from a steaming tea pot to the latest red-hot gadget from the Sears catalogue. More often than not, how.' ever, the heat would spread quickly beyond the small tile and onto checkered oilcloth, which just as quickly exuded a rank odor. Yet matter how intensely the four of us competed for elbow room at table, none dared venture near the lone dinner place arranged securely to the left of the tile. There was no telling when HE would get ho from work, but, when he did, he expected things to be ready. He likes to eat right away-chicken mostly-two thick pieces in the middle his plate for openers.

The description in this passage is relational-that is, the objects described are controlled by the significance the writer attaches to them. Each object is described as being more than simply "out there." Unlike the previous illustration, in which a neutral tone of voice prevails, this sample of subjective description projects a real sense of a speaker in each sentence, a personal voice that mixes facts and feelings. Accordingly, the language used is more evocative, richer in suggestion than in precision. No numbers, for example, are mentioned. The verbs, nouns, adjectives, and figures of speech depend on connotation-the range of associations and implications extending far beyond dictionary meanings-for their effect. Hence, it is not unusual to see a greater variety of sentence structure in subjective than in objective description. The writer invariably works with fewer details but tries to do much more with each of them. Subjective description is a staple of autobiography, drama, fiction, and poetry. It also marks certain types of expository writing, especially the informal or personal essays featured in magazines and newspapers. (E. B. White's essay "The Ring of Time," p. 129, offers an outstanding example.)

9 We can increase the likelihood that we will write successful description, whether objective or subjective, if we keep in mind a fairly simple sequence for our thinking and writing. First, we must observe the object, person, or scene carefully. The fundamental role of descriptive writing is to make our readers see. Yet while description is primarily visual-we create word pictures-we should not ignore the power of language to make readers hear, taste, smell, and even touch our subject as well. Moreover, when we set out to recreate our sense impressions, we invariably will help move our thinking and writing from that level to the point where we can draw inferences. (See "Observation and Inference," p. 47.)

10 Our second task-once we have observed our subject carefully-is to choose the most appropriate and evocative details. This is perhaps our most important decision when writing description. More often than not, we will have far more details to select from than we can possibly use. By focusing on the uniqueness of our subject, we should be able to decide which significant details are needed to make the subject as vivid as possible for our audience. If, for example, we wanted to drop off our car at the garage and leave a note for the mechanic explaining what is wrong with it, we would obviously need to be more specific than writing simply, "It doesn't start easily." So, too, we need not describe the car's exterior if we are concerned about the motor's not running. It is the quality, not the quantity, of details that counts. Keeping our purpose and audience in mind will undoubtedly help us decide which details will have the greatest impact in our sentences.

11 Having selected the most appropriate details, we then need to make sure, especially in a subjective description, that what we say about one detail will be clear enough so that when we move on to the next our readers will not forget those already discussed. The way to avoid this potential problem is to begin the description with a brief overview. (In our earlier case, the kitchen table "was a magnet that drew our family together.") Each detail will then contribute to what may be called the essay's dominant impression--the most important point we intend to convey. In the essay describing the kitchen, the dominant impression might be summarized in the family's locating "stability" in the objects and activities identified with the kitchen table. Or, to take another example, suppose we were walking in a thick woods early on a May morning. The scene may have been so pleasant that we wished to write to a friend to report what it was like. Having observed the scene carefully, we would make each of the details selected work toward establishing the dominant impression: the freshness of the morning. (John Muir's sketch of the awesome spectacle of Yosemite Falls-p.122-is an excellent example of creating a dominant impression in description.)

12 In writing description, we need to pay close attention not only to the details of what is being described but also to the sequence-the movement of thought-in the description itself. The simplest way to secure the most memorable sequence of details is to present them as the eye discovers them arranged in space. This spatial order might progress, for example, from top to bottom or left to right (or vice versa) when describing a person or an object, respectively. When picturing a scene, however, an order of near to far (or vice versa) may prove most effective. There are several standard alternative sequences for developing description: from general to specific, from small to large, and from most common to most unusual feature, or vice versa. We could also begin with an overview of the subject to be described and then gradually focus on its outstanding feature. Whichever sequence we choose to develop, we ought to remember to work with an order natural enough to be followed easily by our audience.

13 Our point of view-where we stand literally and figuratively in relation to our subject-plays a large role in determining the extent and intensity of a description. Consider, for example, how different a description of a police station could be, depending on the writer's point of view: that of the victim, the accused, the arresting officer, the desk sergeant, the lawyer, or the parents. Generally speaking, the closer we bring our audience to the person, place, object, or state of mind, the greater the number of precise details needed to portray the subject adequately. Whether our point of view is fixed (for example, standing in one spot to describe a room) or moving (describing, say, what we see as we raft down the Colorado), we should either maintain a consistent point of view throughout the essay or alert readers to any shifts in perspective (for example, moving a description of a house from the outside to the inside). A consistent point of view helps unify descriptive writing.

14 Description stabilizes and enriches our thinking and writing. It not only places our ideas in a clearer context but also adds specificity to our sentences. It thickens our writing. When it works well, description strengthens our thinking by converting random sense impressions into a coherent series of interrelated details. Descriptive writing falters when we simply pile up loosely connected details. When we do this, we invariably run the risk of boring, if not confusing, our readers. We ought, instead, to manage the details of our descriptions with care, choosing those that are best suited to our purpose and audience. Writing effective description is challenging work, but when we succeed at it, we make our prose more precise, realistic, immediate, and engaging.   ( McQuade and Atwan 104-109) 

Work Cited:  McQuade and Atwan.Thinking in Writing. New York, Knopf, 1980.

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