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Description: Looking to the Classics

Description: it’s one of the linchpins to good writing. Without an appropriate description, readers have nothing to hang onto in a written work. Descriptions have the ability to help your reader visualize the place, people, and objects in your crafted environment. Using any of the five senses, preferably a combination of multiple ones, you make your writing more vivid and real.

Do’s and Don’ts:

Do: be specific. Having vague details does less to ground your reader than having specific details, which help to flesh out the world better and give a more accurate sense of character. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg make the landscape distinct.

“About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of generous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping grounds.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Don’t: forget to use the five senses. Readers experience a story more fully if they can immerse themselves in the environment you create. The Great Gatsby uses at least two of the senses when the appearance and sound of the cars are described.

Don’t: use too much passive tense. It’s important to keep your writing in active tense, so show instead of tell. This engages your reader and allows you to delve deeper into the word you build. When F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the valley of ashes, he stays in the present active tense, inviting the reader to imagine that they are viewing the valley with their own eyes.

Do: create exciting sentences. This means varying your sentence structure along with the descriptive language you use in your writing. Example: When the rain came the crowd scattered like a pack of playing cards, vanishing into the night air. F. Scott Fitzgerald strings together words into unique sentences in The Great Gatsby passage above.

Do: use a point of view character. It’s important to have a character interact with the written environment because that’ll help to build up the reader’s view of that setting. When Sylvia Plath uses visual description to show different possibilities, she does this through the mind of her point of view character.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Don’t: use abstract words when describing things (basically, don’t be vague). Be specific in the way you describe people and the environment. Using unique descriptions is important because, in real life, there’s usually something that sticks out about the world we see and the people in it. Extending this to your writing reflects reality. The Bell Jar maintains an informal writing style while also creating a rich description of the fig tree.

Do: think about your setting. Different kinds of writing have different conventions for their settings. As an example, fantasy needs an intricate environment where extensive world-building is necessary. This includes both the physical setting and the creatures which populate your fantasy world. J. R. R. Tolkien does this extensively in The Hobbit. His Middle Earth novels helped lay the groundwork for modern fantasy.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill —The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.” - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Don’t: be repetitive. There are enough words in the English language for synonyms of many of the common words we use. Try to alternate your word choice, but don’t use such big words that your readers won’t be able to understand. J. R. R Tolkien keeps his description of the hobbit-hole lively by varying the words he uses as well as the sentence lengths.

I hope you find these tips and tricks useful, though don’t forget to keep the most important thing in mind: ultimately, these are only suggestions, and how you decide to write is up to you. There’s always room for improvement, but the style you develop is yours alone. Don’t be afraid to experiment!


About the Author: Layna Putterman is a student at Vassar College and an English major. They are currently working on a manuscript for a fantasy novel. They have two dogs and two cats at home.


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1 Comment

Thank you so much for these tips, I'm going to try and incorporate them into my writing from now on!

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