When I was young, I used to think that description wasn’t my thing. I used to think that I could only ever write arguments. I had always been more an argumentative than a descriptive kid. After I’ve grown up, I found out that description, like anything else, was a skill that could be learned and consciously honed. Thank God that I have finally outgrown my fixed mindset, or I wouldn’t be where I am, teaching writing and penning these tips today.
Take your time to let your narrative unfold
- When you read the work of a young learner, you can often see them committing a mistake which is obvious to most adult writers. They do not know how to take the time to let actions unfold one by one so that the plot can progress and develop step by step naturally. Such a failure to “take the time” results in writing which reads like this: “I went to the park after lunch for a walk. In the park, suddenly, I saw a rabbit running by. It jumped into a hole! I ran after it. I caught up with it. It looked so scared. I let it go.”
- Writing is like filmmaking. When you need to produce a film of a certain length, a certain number of frames is essential for the film to not look jumpy. Young writers often haven’t yet mastered strong enough a grasp of the language to insert the necessary amount of details in their writing.
- What teachers should do here to help a young writer is to ask the right questions so that the gaps between one action and another can be filled up. This way, young learners can construct a fuller, more continuous and sophisticated narration.
- A teacher’s comments should go like this: I went to the park after lunch for a walk. (Why do you choose to go for a walk among all the things that you can do?) In the park, suddenly, I saw a rabbit running by. (How did you discover the running by rabbit? Did you hear its feet thumping on the ground? Did the rabbit talk to itself while running and panting like that in Alice in Wonderland?) (It ran and ran until) it jumped into a hole (Where was the hole? – , which was right beneath a tree a few miles ahead of me)! I ran after it. (I ran and ran until I was panting and feeling out of my breath. I eventually) caught up with it. (How did I hold it? E.g. I held it tight in my arms but) [i]t looked so scared that I felt that I must let it go.
- Students should be given the right guidance so that they can construct with the help of their tutor a narrative which describes a chain of actions that logically follow one another. The reader should be able to see in his or her mind’s eye what is, in fact, happening.
Action verbs are important
- Engines revved. The wind caresses us on the face. We take a glimpse at someone. Peter sprained his ankle. While the importance of learning more adjectives and adverbs is understood by most students, more often neglected is the importance of verbs. Knowing our verbs can make it much easier to describe what happens in a descriptive essay, especially when it so often centres on actions.
Appeal to the senses
- It goes without saying that appealing to the sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch makes your description more sensational. Don’t forget the need to learn up the vocabulary and sentence structures you need to describe what things look like, sound like, smell like and feel like.
- A generic tip for going about this is: Steal from your favourite writer by re-reading and analysing their narratives. What visual, aural, tactile, gustatory as well as olfactory details have been inserted in there? Colour-code them for your own easy reference.
- Many young writers think that visual description is hard because they don’t know where to start. It is thus useful to remind them that what things and people look like including their colours (and for people, in that matter, the colour of their hair, skin, as well as clothing), widths and heights, textures. Words describing expressions will also come in handy when it comes to describing people. Using collective nouns can often render it much easier for the reader to visualise quantities.
- To know more ways to describe sounds, take a look at this post we made on Facebook.
- The device of onomatopoeia is extremely useful when it comes to describing sounds, so tutors should make sure that students are introduced to it.
- If you’re short of time to brush up on adjectives such as rotten, putrefying, mouthwatering and flowery, at least you should know the words “stench” and “aroma” when it comes to the description of smells.
- To describe in a way that appeals to the senses, a sentence structure students must have in mind is the “Something/someone looks/sounds/smells/feels as if…” The device of simile is also really useful.
These tips, of course, are by no means exhaustive. This is just me rambling on on some of the things to which you should probably pay attention when writing a story and about which I feel strongly.