Tips on the Goals of Description in Writing

Description is one of three legs of the “storytelling tripod,” working with exposition and narration — not only in fiction but also in poetry and nonfiction. In her new book, Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan dispels some myths about the uses and goals of description. She writes:

  • Description is not “all that flowery stuff.” It isn’t mere embellishment, something we stitch to the top of our writing to make it more presentable.
  • Description doesn’t begin on the page. It begins in the eye and ear and mouth and nose and hand of the beholder. Careful and imaginative observation may well be the most essential task of any writer.
  • Writing descriptively doesn’t always mean writing gracefully. Description won’t necessarily make our writing more refined, lyrical or poetic. Some descriptions demand uneven syntax and plainspoken, blunt prose. Jagged, even. Fragments too. Slice of chin. Buzz saw.
  • Description doesn’t always require a bigger vocabulary. “House” is probably a better choice than “domicile,” and “red blood” is brighter than “the sanguine flow of bodily fluids.”
  • Description rarely stands alone. Most description exists as part of a larger poem, essay or story, seamlessly intertwined with other literary elements. Description isn’t something we simply insert, block style, into passages of narration or exposition. Yes, sometimes we write passages of description. But the term passage suggests a channel, a movement from one place to another; it implies that we’re going somewhere. That “somewhere” is the story.

Click here for more information from Rebecca McClanahan — there you’ll find “What Is Description?”, as well as Word Painting‘s table of contents and sample exercises from the book. Here’s one of the exercises from Chapter Eight, “The Story Takes Its Place: Descriptions of Setting”:

Describe the same neighborhood as viewed by three different people — for instance, a lifelong resident who’s so accustomed to the scene he barely notices it anymore, a teenager who can’t wait to escape the place, and a dewy-eyed honeymooner moving into her first home.

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively ($14.99, pb).

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