Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Art of Description: 25 Tips

'Scott has spent pages and pages upon describing a country scene, this is very uninteresting, but it is intensely good literature.'

(The Newbolt Report: “The Teaching of English in England” (1921))




In popular literature description appears to have been devalued in favour of character and plot. Description can be enjoyable in itself, but often it relates to, and helps to build the plot, mood, character, or atmosphere.  In our busy modern world perhaps we feel that we don’t have time to wallow in description. I have heard some writers saying that they don't bother doing the scene setting any more. This is sad.

In fact, our age is one of immense (simulated) visual and sonic richness and variety. Never have we had such an immense range of sensory stimuli. Nonetheless, we are often so caught up in the flow that we lack either the creative engagement or the critical detachment that would enable the production of delightful or striking descriptive prose.

Descriptive writing vividly re-connects us to the world, and it stimulates deeper, more sustainable thinking and feeling about our lived and our imagined experiences.

What techniques are involved in effective description, and what should be avoided?

In my view, description should avoid

  1. writing that is dull and flat.
  1. lazy words: had, was, get, nice, good, bad, really.
  1. padding - unnecessary description
  1. simply listing words or items
Effective description


  1. selects key details to convey and focus the primary impression of the scene
  2. cultivates magic and mystery
  3. presents what was plain or the banal so that it stands out in a more vivid way
  4. chooses interesting words
  5. aims for specificity and clarity in word choice 
  6. develops creative writing skills by reading and critically dissecting literary texts
  7. makes the scene vivid to the reader: clear, strong, credible
  8. considers handling of time and place, and transitions between them
  9. use frames, snapshots, or photographs. These can then be placed in a logical sequence
  10. considers the reflective mood of the observer
  11. employs the five senses
  12. copes well with a sense of proximity and distance
  13. plans its ideas in advance (e.g. spider diagram, mindmaps, notes)
  14. prioritises and foregrounds key details
  15. varies sentence type and structures, with a consciousness of pace and rhythm
  16. considers rhetorical strategies
  17. employs striking figurative tropes such as simile, pathetic fallacy and metaphors
  18. borrows from poetry a sense of sound (e.g. assonance, alliteration)
  19. employs a beginning, a middle and the sense of an ending
  20. attends to the flow of thoughts by using connectives and transitional words
  21. checks accuracy of spelling, grammar and punctuation

Sadly, even the models of excellence (A*) outlined by the exam boards seem to lack flair and imagination. But here they are, in case you need to refer to them:

Content and organisation

· content is well-judged, sustained and pertinent, firmly engaging the reader’s interest

· the writing is well-crafted in an appropriate form with distinctive structural or stylistic features

· paragraphs are effectively varied in length and structure to control detail and
progression

· there is a sophisticated organisation of detailed content within and between paragraphs

· a wide range of appropriate, ambitious vocabulary is used to create effect or convey
precise meaning

Sentence structure, punctuation and spelling

· there is appropriate and effective variation of sentence structures 

· there is a sophisticated use of simple, compound and complex sentences to achieve
particular effects 

· accurate punctuation is used to vary pace, clarify meaning, avoid ambiguity and create deliberate effects 

· virtually all spelling, including that of complex irregular words, is correct

· tense changes are used confidently and purposefully

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.


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