Describing

to describe: v. to give a verbal account; to transmit a mental image or impression with words.

To describe a person, place, or thing is to create a verbal image so that readers can see what you see, hear what you hear, and taste, smell, and feel what you taste, smell, and feel. Your goal is to make it real enough for readers to experience it for themselves. Above all, descriptive details need to be purposeful. Heed the advice of Russian writer Anton Chekhov: "If a gun is hanging on the wall in the first chapter, it must, without fail, fire in the second or third chapter. If it doesn't fire, it mustn't hang either."

The ability to describe something that you witnessed or experienced so that your reader can witness or experience it is useful in all kinds of writing from expository to argumentative, narrative to interpretative. In the following example, Becky describes the setting of a ballet rehearsal, explaining at the same time, the difference between amateur and professional dancers:

The backstage studio is alive with energy. . . . Dancers are scattered around the room, stretching, chatting, adjusting shoes and tights. Company members, the professionals who are joining us for this performance, wear tattered leg warmers, sweatpants which have lost their elastic, and old T-shirts over tights and leotards. Their hair is knotted into buns or, in the case of male dancers, held tight with sweat-bands. You can tell the students by the runless pink tights, dress-code leotards, and immaculate hair.

To describe how processes work is more complicated than giving a simple physical description, for in addition to showing objects at rest, you need to show them in sequence and motion. To describe a process, it's usually best to divide the process into discrete steps and present the steps in a logical order. For some processes this is easy (making chili, giving highway directions). For others it is more difficult, either because many steps are all happening at once or because people really don't know which steps necessarily come before others (manufacturing a car, writing a research paper).

Whatever the case, your job is to show the steps in a logical sequence that will be easy for readers to understand. To orient readers, you may also want to number the steps, using transition words such as first, second, and third. In the following example, a team of students visited Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream company to write a paper explaining its origin and operation; they included the following process description in their paper:

We learned that their ice cream begins in the Blend Tank, a two hundred forty lb. stainless steel tank that combines Vermont milk, sweet cream, egg yolks, unrefined sugar, and the flavor of the day.

From there, the mix is sent in big stainless vats to the thirty-six degree (cold!) Tank Room, where it sits for four to eight hours before it receives further flavoring.

From the Tank Room, the mix moves into four, three hundred gallon Flavor Vats, so they can put in the greenish liquid peppermint extract for the Mint Oreo and the brown pungent smelling coffee extract for the Coffee Heath Bar Crunch.

Finally, it moves to the Flavor Vat, where they mix in big chunks of broken Oreos or Heath Bar they need for the ice cream they are producing on that day.

The ice cream making process is clear because the writers use a four-part sequence with the cue words, begins, from there, from the, and finally, so there is no question of what is happening when.

To describe well, use nouns that conjure up concrete and specific images, such as the stainless steel vats and Heath Bars in the Ben and Jerry's piece. Also use action verbs wherever you can, such as scattered and knotted in the ballet paper. And use modifiers that appeal to the senses—tattered leg warmers, greenish liquid peppermint extract—all of which help readers visualize what you are talking about.

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