What is Description?
- the use of prose—especially concrete, sensory language and figurative language—to describe events, people, ideas, concepts
- a dominant and powerful form of human expression
- Description plays a role in all genres. In fact, it’s commonplace for writers to describe the context that informs their text, including a discussion of ongoing scholarly conversations
- a way of categorizing discourse
- a dominant mode of discourse
- an attribute of reader-based discourse.
Description in multimodal compositions uses visual language to supplement or replace alphabetic language. When appropriate in light of the exigency that discourse, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . use data visualizations, photographs, table, graphs, and so on to show rather than tell.
Related Concepts: Given to New Contract; Register; Vague Language; Writer-Based Prose Style
Why Does Description Matter?
Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . need to provide description to help audiences visualize and understand a message.
Interpretation is incredibly difficult. Writers and readers come to texts with different perspectives, points of view, literary histories. Even a single emotional connotation associated with a single word can so disrupt the tone, voice, and persona of a text that readers will become confused.
Description plays a vital role in human communication: Descriptive details, especially concrete details and sensory language, help writers and readers communicate: it gives them a common ground.
Readers, listeners, users . . .
- need sensory language to better empathize with and imagine the writer’s experiences, point of view, and arguments
- need concrete, specific language to understand and empathize with a writers, speakers, knowledge workers’ . . . observations, arguments, and stories.
- need figurative language to understand new concepts, to relate old information with new information
How Can I Learn to Write More Descriptively?
The first step toward incorporating descriptive detail into your prose is determining your purpose: you only want to detail critical information. If you detail everything, the reader, listener, user . . . will become confused.
So, you need to engage in the intellectual processes of rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning in order to ascertain the level of detail you need to provide.
Once you’ve settled on your rhetorical stance, you are ready to take on your document, word-by-word.
3 Strategies for Developing Descriptive Detail
- Appeal to the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing).
- Provide concrete, specific details.
- Compare the topic to other topics using figurative language, similes and metaphors.
- A simile is a comparison of topics using like or as: “She used her intelligence like a sword, cutting through dense concepts like a knife cuts through butter”.
- A metaphor is a comparison of two different things by likening them to each other, but without using the words like or as. A metaphor can be an entire story or a part of speech or phrase: “Education is a lifetime journey.”
Example Metaphoric Story (Author Unknown)
The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.
‘Now,’ said the professor, ‘I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things — your family, your partner, your health, your children — things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else. The small stuff.
If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that really matter. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the rocks first — the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.'”
Ohmann, Richard (December 1979). “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language.” College English 41(4), 390-97.