Description is about sensory something looks, sounds, tastes. Mostly it is about visual experience, but description also deals with other kinds of perception. The following passage, for example, uses sounds to describe the beginning of an act of revolutionary violence in China:
Five shots went off in a nearby street: three together, another, still another. . . . The silence returned, but it no longer seemed to be the same. Suddenly it was filled by the clatter of horses' hoofs, hurried, coming nearer and nearer. And, like the vertical laceration of lightning after a prolonged thunder, while they still saw nothing, a tumult suddenly filled the street, composed of mingled cries, shots, furious whinnyings, the falling of bodies; then, as the subsiding clamor was heavily choking under the indestructible silence, there rose a cry as of a dog howling lugubriously, cut short: a man with his throat Andre
Whatever sense it appeals to, descriptive writing is of two broad kinds: objective and subjective. In objective description the writer sets aside those aspects of the perception unique to himself and concentrates on describing the percept (that is, what is perceived) in itself. In subjective (also called impressionistic) description a writer projects his or her feelings into the percept. Objective description says, "This is how the thing is"; subjective, "This is how the thing seems to one particular consciousness."
Neither kind of description is more "honest." Both are (or can be) true, but they are true in different ways. The truth of objective description lies in its relationship to fact; that of subjective in relationship to feeling or evaluation. The first kind of truth is more easily checked. We can generally decide which of two passages more accurately describes, say, a downtown office building. Subjective description, on the other hand, is "true" because it presents a valuable response, not because it makes an accurate report. If we do not agree with how a writer feels about something, we cannot say that the description is false. We can say only that it is not true for is, that we do not share his or her feelings.
Nor are these two approaches hard-and-fast categories into which any piece of descriptive writing must fall. Most descriptions involve both, in varying degrees. Generally, however, one mode will dominate and fix the focus. In scientific and legal writing, for instance, objectivity is desirable. In personal writing subjectivity is more likely.
But in both kinds, success hinges on three things: (1) details that are sharply defined images, appealing to one or another of the senses; (2) details that are selected according to a guiding principle; (3) details that are clearly organized.
In objective description the principle which guides selection is the thing itself. The writer must ask: Which details are essential to seeing and understanding this object, event, person, experience? Which are accidental and of lesser importance? Essential details should make up the bulk of the description, those of secondary importance being included as the writer has space.
The following description of a freshwater fish by an eigh teenth-century naturalist exemplifies the selection of essential detail:
The loach, in its general aspect, has a pellucid appearance: its back is mottled with irregular collections of small black dots, not reaching much below the linea lateralis, as are the back and tail fins: a black line runs from each eye down to the nose; its belly is of a silvery white; the upper jaw projects beyond the lower, and is surrounded with six feelers, three on each side; its pectoral fins are large, its ventral much smaller; the fin behind its anus small; its dorsal fin large, containing eight spines; its tail, where it joins the tail-fin, remarkably broad, without any taperness, so as to be characteristic of this genus; the tail-fin is broad, and square at the end. From the breadth and muscular strength of the tail, it appears to be an active nimble fish. Gilbert White
White focuses on those features that enable us to recognize a loach: size and shape of tail and fins, number of feelers on each side of the jaw, and so on. Scientific description like this is a kind of definition, differentiating an entity from others similar to it.
Objective description, especially the visual kind, often begins with a brief comprehensive view. It then analyzes this image and presents each part in detail, following an organization inherent in the object. Here, for instance, is a description of a lake in Maine:
In shape the lake resembles a gently curving S, its long axis lying almost due north-south. The shoreline is ringed by rocks of all sizes, from huge boulders to tiny pebbles—the detritus of the Ice Age. Beyond the rocks the forest comes almost to the water's edge. Mostly pine and hemlock, it contains a few oak, birch. Here and there an old pine, its roots washed nearly clean of support, leans crazily over the water, seeming about to topple at any instant. But it never does; trees fall this way for years.
First we view the lake in its entirety, as a hawk might see it. Then we focus down and move progressively closer to shore. We see the rocks immediately at the water's edge, then the forest, then the various kinds of trees, and finally the old pine leaning over the water. The description, in short, is organized: it moves from general to particular, and it divides the visual experience of the lake into three parts—the lake as a whole, the shoreline, and the forest around.
To effect these changes in viewpoint, the writer does not waste time directing us. He does not say, "As we leave the bird's-eye view and come down for a closer look, we observe that the shoreline is ringed with rocks." It is awkward and wordy to turn tour guide. It is better to move about the object implicitly without holding the reader by the hand. Doing this usually requires an impersonal and omniscient point of view: impersonal in the sense that the writer does not refer to himself or herself; omniscient in that nothing is hidden, and he or she can range with complete below, around the object, inside and out. Readers will follow if the writer has clearly organized what they are supposed to see.
But he or she must organize. Writers of good description do not just "see." They analyze what they see and give it a pattern. Taking a perception apart in order to put it together can be seen in the following sentence by Joseph Conrad, which describes a coastal view. The angle of vision does not change as it did in the description of the lake, but there is a principle of organization:
Beyond the sea wall there curves for miles in a vast and regular sweep the barren beach of shingle, with the village of Brenzett standing out darkly across the water, a spire in a clump of trees; and still further out the perpendicular column of a lighthouse, looking in the distance no bigger than a lead pencil, marks the vanishing point of the land.
Our view shifts from near to distant. Our eyes move outward through a series of receding planes: the sea wall, the beach, the village with its spire and trees across the water, and the lighthouse in the
In objective description words are chosen for exactness of denotation, not for forcefulness of connotation. Factual precision is what is most desired. Gilbert White (page 254) says "six feelers, three on each side," not "several feelers." He carefully differentiates fins by concise technical names: "pectoral," "ventral," "dorsal."
Scientific description like this is not easy to write. Given enough time to observe and the training to know what to look for, anyone can compose a reasonably accurate description of a fish. But it requires more care to compose a description that is accurate and at the same time forceful, interesting prose. It is worth studying White's paragraph to observe how he organizes it and gives it vitality and movement by the short, direct clauses, constructed with just enough variety to avoid monotony.
When describing objectively, the writer is a kind of camera, recording precisely and impersonally. When writing subjectively, he or she is no longer an impartial observer, but rather enters into what is perceived. Point of view—in most cases— becomes personal; and words have overtones of value and feeling that color the perception.
These evaluations and feelings are as much a part of the description as the object itself. In fact, more: they determine selection and organization. Sometimes writers state impressions directly, as in this paragraph about an Englishwoman's reactions to the citizens of Moscow:
1 wandered about in the morning and looked at the streets and people. All my visit I looked and looked at the people. They seem neither happier nor sadder than in the West, and neither more nor less worried than any town dweller. (People in towns are always preoccupied. "Have I missed the bus? Have 1 forgotten the potatoes? Can I get across the road?") But they appear stupid, what the French call abruti. What do they think? Perhaps they don't think very much, and yet they read enormously. 1 never saw such a country of sitting on benches, in the metro, etc., all read books (magazines seem not to exist); on the trains they have lending libraries. They are hideously ugly. Except for a few young officers, I never saw a handsome man; there seem to be no beautiful women. They have putty faces, like Malenkov. It is nonsense to speak of Asiatics, Mongol Hordes and so on—the pretty little Tartar guards at Lenin's tomb were the only people I saw with non-European cast of features. Nancy Mitford
While subjective description often states an impression directly, it cannot rest on abstract statement. Feeling must be fixed in images, in details appealing to the senses. Only details, emotionally charged, make the impression real.
No more dreary spectacle can be found on this earth than the whole of the "awful East," with its Whitechapel, Hoxton, Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, and Wapping to the East India Docks. The colour of life is grey and drab. Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty. Bath tubs are a thing totally unknown, as mythical as the ambrosia of the gods. The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic. Strange, vagrant odours come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water from heaven. The very cobblestones are scummed with grease.
London, writing in begins by telling us what impression the slums of London's east end make on him: "no more dreary spectacle"; "the colour of life is grey and drab"; "everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty." But we don't experience the impression until he renders it in images:
"vagrant odours," "greasy wind," "rain ... like grease," "cobblestones ... scummed with grease."
You can see that details work differently in impressionistic description than in objective. Connotations are more important, and diction is charged with emotion. The writer wants to arouse in readers a response like his own. But he must do more than merely tell us how he feels. He must re-create the scene in a altered manner, including this detail and omitting that, exaggerating one image and underplaying another, and calling up compelling similes and metaphors.
In short, the perception must be refracted through the writer's consciousness. It may emerge idealized, like a landscape by a romantic painter. It may be distorted and made ugly, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Idealization and distortion are perfectly legitimate. The writer of subjective description signs no contract to deliver literal truth. "Here," he or she says, "is how / see it." Yet the description may reveal a deeper truth than mere objective accuracy, and, like an artist's caricature, make plain a subtle reality.
To convey subjective truth, then, a writer must embody responses in the details of the scene. Often, in fact, he or she relies exclusively upon such embodiment, making little or no statement of feeling and, instead, forcing the perception to speak for itself. A simple case is catalogue description, in which the writer lists detail after detail, each contributing to a dominant impression. The following paragraph is a good example (it describes an outdoor market on Decatur Street in New Orleans):
The booths are Sicilian, hung with red peppers, draped with garlic, piled with fruit, trayed with vegetables, fresh and dried herbs. A huge man, fat as Silenus, daintily binds bunches for soup, while his wife quarters cabbages, ties smaller bundles of thyme, parsley, green onions, small hot peppers and sweet pimentos to season gumbos. Another Italian with white moustache, smiling fiercely from a tanned face, offers jars of green file powder, unground all-spice, pickled onions in vinegar. Carts and trucks flank the sidewalk; one walks through crates of curled parsley, scallions piled with ice, wagonloads of spinach with tender mauve stalks, moist baskets of crisp kale; sacks of white onions in oyster-white fishnet, pink onions in sacks of old rose; piles of eggplant with purple reflections, white garlic and long sea-green leeks with shredded roots, grey-white like witches' hair. Boxes of artichokes fit their leaves into a complicated pattern. Trucks from Happy Jack, Boothville, and Buras have unloaded their oranges; a long red truck is selling cabbages, green peppers, squashes long and curled like the trumpets of Jericho. There is more than Jordaens profusion, an abundance more glittering in color than Pourbus. A blue truck stands in sunlight, Negroes clambering over its sides, seven men in faded jeans, washing-blue overalls; the last is a mulatto in a sweater of pure sapphire. A mangy cat steps across a roadway of crushed oranges and powdered oyster-shells. John Peale Bishop
Not only the individual details, but their very profusion convey vitality and abundance far more effectively than would any plain statement. It is not possible to overestimate the importance of specificity to good description. Look back at how carefully Bishop names colors.
While details in catalogue are generally chosen according to an underlying feeling or evaluation, the selection is less rigorous than in some other kinds of subjective description. Thus Bishop includes the "mangy cat" and the "crushed oranges," even though these jar slightly with the attractiveness of the scene. More often the writer "edits" the perception, using fewer details and only those conducive to the impression. The novelist Thomas Wolfe, for example, draws this picture of an idealized, if modest, home:
On the outskirts of a little town upon a rise of land that swept back from the railway there was a tidy little cottage of white boards, trimmed vividly with green blinds. To one side of the house there was a garden neatly patterned with plots of growing vegetables, and an arbor for the grapes which ripened late in August. Before the house there were three mighty oaks which sheltered it in their clean and massive shade in summer, and to the other side there was a border of gay flowers. The whole place had an air of tidiness, thrift, and modest comfort.
The final sentence sums up the scene and states the impression directly, as to the modifiers "neatly," "clean," "gay," but on the whole the images create the sense of middle-class fulfillment. Any ugliness is excluded. If the lawn were disfigured by crabgrass, if weeds leered among the flowers, the facts are discreetly omitted.
Very different are the the this account of the homes of miners in the north of England:
found great variation in the houses visited. Some were as decent as one could possibly expect in the circumstances, some were so appalling that 1 have no hope of describing them adequately. To begin with, the smell, the dominant and essential thing, is indescribable. But the squalor and the confusion! A tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper! And the congestion in a tiny room where getting from one side to the other is a complicated voyage between pieces of furniture, with a line of damp washing getting you in the face every time you move and the children as thick underfoot as toadstools! George Orwell
Sometimes a writer concentrates on one or two images which symbolize the impression. In the following passage Alfred Kazin projects into two key symbols his childhood despair at being forced to attend a special school because of his stuttering:
troubled me that could speak in the fullness of my own voice only when was alone on the streets, walking about. There was something unnatural about it; unbearably isolated. I was not like the others! At midday, every freshly shocking Monday noon, they sent me away to a speech clinic in a school in East New York, where I sat in a circle of lispers and cleft palates and foreign accents holding a mirror before my lips and rolling difficult sounds over and over. To be sent there in the full light of the opening week, when everyone else was at school or going about his business, made me feel as if I had been expelled from the great normal body of humanity. ! would gobble down my lunch on my way to the speech clinic and rush back to the school in time to make up for the classes had lost. One day, one unforgettable dread day, stopped to catch my breath on a corner of Sutter Avenue, near the wholesale fruit markets, where an old drugstore rose up over a great flight of steps. In the window were dusty urns of colored water floating off iron chains; cardboard placards advertising hairnets, EX-LAX; a great illustrated medical chart headed THE HUMAN FACTORY, which showed the exact course a mouthful of food follows as it falls from chamber to chamber of the body. I hadn't meant to stop there at all, only to catch my breath; but so hated the speech clinic that thought would delay my arrival for a few minutes by eating my lunch on the steps. When I took the sandwich out of my bag, two bitterly hard pieces of hard salami slipped out of my hand and fell through a grate onto a hill of dust below the steps. I remember how sickeningly vivid an odd thread of hair looked on the salami, as if my lunch were turning stiff with death. The factory whistles called their short, sharp blasts stark through the middle of noon, beating at me where sat outside the city's magnetic circle. I had never known, I knew instantly I would never in my heart again submit to, such wild passive despair as felt at that moment, sitting on the steps before THE HUMAN FACTORY, where little robots gathered and shoveled the food from chamber to chamber of the body. They had put me out into the streets, I thought to myself; with their mirrors and their everlasting pulling at me to imitate their effortless bright speech and their stupefaction that a boy could stammer and stumble on every other English word he carried in his head, they put me out into the streets, had left me high and dry on the steps of that drugstore staring at the remains of my lunch turning black and grimy in the dust.
In Kazin's description selection is extremely important. The passage focuses onto the images of THE HUMAN FACTORY and the two pieces of salami. Kazin tells us what his feelings were (he is quite explicit). But he communicates the despair of an alienated child in the salami with its "odd thread of hair ... turning black and grimy in the dust," and the inhuman little robots endlessly shoveling food into a body that has become a machine. In a world symbolized by such images there is little room for humane values, for love and compassion and tender understanding.
Kazin's paragraph shows the importance of the "crystallizing image," the detail that precipitates the scene in the reader's mind. The writer must make readers see (or hear or taste or touch). He or she cannot achieve this merely by relentlessly listing every detail that falls within the perceptual field. Even in catalogue descriptions like that by John Peale Bishop, we are shown only a portion of what exists to be seen. The writer must select relatively few details but render these so vividly that a reader sees them in his mind's eye. These will then crystalize the perception, making it solid and true. It is rather like developing a photograph. The writer begins the process, carefully choosing details and expressing them in compelling images; readers, developing these images in the fluid of their own experience, complete the picture for themselves.
The point to remember is this: select only the details essential to the impression you want to convey; describe them precisely and concretely; then readers will perceive them.
In addition to selecting and arranging details, the writer of description may also introduce comparisons, often in the form of metaphors or similes. In Bishop's paragraph about the Decatur Street Market, for instance, the proprietor is "fat as Silenus" (an ancient god of wine), the leeks "sea-green" with roots "like witches' hair," and the squashes "long and curled like the trumpets of Jericho."
Metaphor is even more central in the following passage about the Great Wall of China. The Wall assumes a monstrous power as it marches over and dominates the lands:
There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down to the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and four square, at due intervals stood at their posts. Ruthlessly, for it was built at the cost of a million lives and each one of those great grey stones has been stained with the bloody tears of the captive and the outcast, it forged its dark way through a sea of rugged mountains. Fearlessly, it went on its endless journey, league upon league to the furthermost regions of Asia, in utter solitude, mysterious like the great empire it guarded. There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China.
W. Somerset Maugham
An impression may be embodied in distorted and exaggerated details. Mark Twain, an adept at the art of hyperbole, or exaggeration, tells of a trip he took in an overland stage in the 1860s. The passengers have spent the night at a way station, and Twain describes the facilities for cleaning up before breakfast the next morning:
By the door, inside, was fastened a small old-fashioned looking-glass frame, with-two little fragments of the original mirror lodged down in one corner of it. This arrangement afforded a pleasant double-barreled portrait of you when you looked into it, with one half of your head set up a couple of inches above the other half. From the glass frame hung the half of a comb by a if had to describe that patriarch or die, believe would order some sample coffins. It had come down from Esau and Samson, and had been accumulating hair ever with certain impurities.
We are not supposed to take this literally, of course. Twain is exercising the satirist's right of legitimate exaggeration, legitimate because it leads us to see a truth about this frontier hostel.
A process is a directed activity in which something undergoes progressive change. The process may be natural, like the growth of a tree; or it may be humanly directed, like an automobile taking shape on an assembly line. But always something is is being done, a product being formed, an end of some kind being achieved.
To describe a process you must analyze its stages. The analysis will determine how you organize the description. In a simple case, such as baking a cake, the process has obvious, prescribed steps; the writer needs only to observe and record them accurately. On the other hand, complicated and abstract processes—for instance, how a law comes into being as an act of more study and thought.
Here is a simple example of a process, a natural small frog being eaten by a giant water bug:
He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as 1 looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag began to sink. Annie Dillard
At the beginning of the description the frog is whole and alive, sitting in the creek; by the end it has been reduced to a bag of skin. This change is the process Dillard describes. It is continuous rather than divided into clearly defined steps. Yet it is analyzed. Verbs, the key words in the analysis, create sharp images of alteration: "crumpled," "collapse," "shrinking," "deflating," "ruck," "rumple," "fall." The similes and metaphors translate an unusual visual experience into more familiar ones: "like a deflating football," "formless as a pricked balloon."
The next example of process description involves an assembly line at a cosmetics plant:
Cream-jar covers joggle along a moving belt. Six iron arms descend to set paper sealers on sextuplicate rows of cream pots. Each clattering cover is held for a moment in a steel disk as a filled cream jar is raised by a metal wrist and screwed on from underneath.
At the mascara merry-go-round a tiny tube is placed in each steel cup—clink. The cups circle—ca-chong, ca-chong, ca-chong—till they pass under two metal udders. There the cups jerk up—ping— and the tubes are filled with mascara that flows from the vats upstairs in manufacturing. The cups continue their circle till they pass under a capper—plump. The filled, capped tubes circle some more till they reach two vacuum nozzles, then—fwap—sucked up, around and down onto a moving belt.
All along the belt women in blue smocks, sitting on high stools, pick up each mascara tube as it goes past. They insert brushes, tamp on labels, encase the tubes in plastic and then cardboard for the drugstore displays.
At the Brush-On Peel-Off Mask line, a filler picks an empty bottle off the belt with her right hand, presses a pedal with her foot, fills the bottle with a of blue goop, changes hands, and puts the filled bottle back on the line with her left hand, as she picks up another empty bottle with her right hand. The bottles go past at thirty-three a minute. Barbara Carson
Garson's description provides a fine example of how analysis determines paragraphing. Three products are cream, mascara, and the "Brush-On Peel-Off each is treated in a separate paragraph. For the mascara two are used, marking the two-stage process of the tubes' being first filled and then packaged.
The sentences are also determined by the analysis. Thus the three sentences of the first paragraph distinguish (1) the covers on the conveyor belt, (2) the iron arms placing sealers on the pots, and (3) the fixing of the lids onto the jars. Notice, too, the long sentence in the fourth paragraph; it uses parallel verbs to analyze the filler's movements.
Process description may be either objective or subjective. Both the foregoing examples are relatively objective, though each suggests responses. Even though Dillard's subject is horrifying and she actually expresses her reaction ("it was a monstrous and terrifying thing"), her images are objective. Dillard concentrates on rendering the visual experience in and of itself (which in a case like this perhaps best communicates the horror).
Despite its objective surface, Garson's description also implies a reaction. Her diction—especially the words imitating sounds—suggests the inhuman quality of the assembly line. Her fourth paragraph cleverly hints her feelings about work on the line. The long elaborate first sentence describing the worker's mechanized movements is followed by a brief matter-of-fact announcement that "the bottles go past at thirty-three a minute." The implication makes sensitive readers wince.
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