Writing Well

Color My World

  • Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, the fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently…
  • —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Word Watch

Descriptive writing uses vivid images to illustrate a specific experience, person, or place.

Write Angles

Descriptive writing is more than scattering a few adjectives and adverbs like rice at a wedding. Rather, it means using vivid words and images to convey meaning.

As you can see from this passage from Poe's short story, descriptive writing uses sensory details to paint a word picture of a person, place, scene, object, or emotion. Descriptive writing is an important part of any writing—even technical pieces. That's because in addition to helping readers grasp emotions, feelings, and characters, effective descriptive writing helps explain and persuade.

You can use descriptive writing in the following ways:

  • To make scenes realistic and memorable
  • To help readers experience an emotion
  • To share your feelings more clearly
  • To bring characters to life
  • To convey key ideas, especially complex ones
  • To help readers feel like they're on the scene

So Write, Already

Follow these guidelines when you write descriptive pieces:

  1. Start by deciding on a method of organization. Spatial organization, for example, works especially well if your details are mainly visual. If you're describing an incident, consider chronological order.
  2. Then select a point of view, the vantage point from which you will relate events or details.
  3. Clearly identify the subject (no guessing games, please).
  4. Use details to create a strong mood or feeling about the subject.
  5. As you write, draw on all five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell.
  6. Consider including figures of speech, those imaginative comparisons that evoke feelings in your readers. Figures of speech (or figurative language) is covered later in this section.

A Master at Work

The following passage describes a pivotal scene from George Orwell's famous essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell, the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950) is famous not only for his grim novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948), but also for his passionate defense of the integrity of the English language. “Shooting an Elephant” focuses on the use and abuse of power. Notice how Orwell draws on the sense of touch and hearing as well as sight:

  • When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time—it might have been five seconds, I dare say—he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered ….

Many novice writers rely most heavily on sight when they're writing a descriptive essay or poem, but smell and taste are actually far more evocative.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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