Descriptive writing is that part of composition that literally describes. Using the 5 senses for inspiration, descriptive writing brings life and color to writing by illustrating ideas and things included in writing. Description is one of the first rhetorical modes taught because it is a basic skill for good writing.
A lone writer slumps across a desk, cradling an old timely typewriter. White light fused through a green shade arcs light across a slice of room, gently illuminating the writer. Stale cigarette smoke and bourbon breath permeate the air of the small, over-full room.
The floor is papered with partially used sheets from the typewriter, some crinkled, some smooth, some under the writer’s chair’s wheels, branded with tire marks. The cheap ticking sound of a Dollar Store battery-operated clock is audible when the traffic from the street below ebbs between changes of the stoplight. Yesterday’s cheese and crackers, or something that looks like it might once have been cheese and crackers, lays upon a chipped white saucer. A cigarette butt ground into a piece of cheese stands like some version of a flag.
The previous passage is an example of descriptive writing. Descriptive writing is also referred to as a word picture. Word pictures are organized around space, unlike any other type of writing, and they seek to provide the reader with a sensory experience of the topic of the writing.
Word pictures may also set the scene for creative writing pieces. Writing and writing classes often begin with descriptive writing because it is one of the easiest and most useful types of writing, which is not to say that it is easy, but merely that for some writers it can be less difficult than other types of writing.
Note in the paragraph above that the most memorable and compelling parts of the paragraph appeal to one of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Of these, taste and touch are the hardest to incorporate into descriptive writing, unless your topic is food.
So, descriptive writing, then, is writing that paints a word picture using appeals to the five senses and organized around space because space, and what does or does not occupy it, is what is written about.
Descriptive writing is of two sorts; subjective and objective. In an objective description, the writer includes only descriptive information that any observer could see. In a subjective description, the writer includes not just the obvious physical details of a scene, but also his/her personal opinions and observations about it.
Both types of description rely on adverbs, words that describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, and adjectives, words that describe nouns and other substantives and tell what kind or how many. Most writing requires spare use of adverbs and adjectives, but description is made of them, so use them as lavishly as you like in your writing, but, please, use them accurately so your word picture peels off the page and dances in the imagination of the reader.
Suitable topics for descriptive writing follow, but first, just a brief word on topics. The suitability of a topic is determined not just by what it is about but also by what it isn’t about. When working on your topic statement or thesis statement, remember to keep the topic narrow enough to fit into the page limit.
For instance, politics is a whole subject not suitable for an essay of two or three pages, but Oklahoma politics since the ALEC and the Kochs’ money took over the State House, is narrow enough to fit into a few pages.
Once more, health is too broad a topic for a short paper, but hospice care in Oklahoma since 2014 is narrow enough to fit into a short paper.
By all means, write about anything you want, but make sure that you can give the topic the space it needs to be fully examined. Accomplish that by narrowing your topic in the very beginning of the writing.
- The best meal I ever ate was. . .
- The prettiest thing I have ever seen was. . .
- The thing I like most about my looks is. . .
- The most eccentric person I have ever known was. . .
- The best teacher I ever had looked like. . .
- My bedroom looks like. . .
- My car looks like. . .
- The Grand Canyon looks. . .
- The ocean is. . .
- My car is so dirty that. . .
- My most ugly boyfriend/girlfriend looked like. . .
- When I look at a painting, I see. . .
- When I look outside, I see. . .
- On vacation I saw. . .
Buy a good journal, and keep on with this exercise. Practice will certainly make you better and quicker at describing. Try to write at least one description per day. Perhaps you can describe features of your daily commute to work, the faces of your children or grandchildren, a button you found on the sidewalk, a new delicious meal you ate. You don’t have to step out of your mundane day-to-day to get writing material. Look and you will find it everywhere.
But by all means and above all, enjoy your writing. It is an unfortunate truth that so many people have been turned off or turned down in writing classes, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Writing makes us smarter and happier, and those alone are good enough reasons to do it. Get the English teacher off of your shoulder, man, he’s heavy, and he ain’t your brother.
By Karlane Kraner and Forest Green, staff writers