When it comes to primary school or lower secondary essay writing, the ability to describe well plays a crucial role in the marks you score for your composition. Primary and Lower Secondary composition writing is probably 50-80% descriptive. The sad thing is: students still don’t get it! Whenever new students sign up for my class, they all have the habit of trying to push the plot of their story along, never once bother stopping to just describe the scene or actions taking place. Here are some tips on how to write good descriptions.
One of the mistakes students make when describing scenery is that they don’t have a general flow or direction in their description. They simply just write down the first thing that comes into their mind.
Fluffy white clouds like cotton candy…
Fresh green grass…
Crystal clear lake…
Instead, what they should be doing is to have a planned direction of travel. An easy way to get into this mindset is to imagine yourself standing in the picture above. Start scanning from the left to the right, top to bottom, or simply walking along a path and taking in the sights/sound/smell of the scenery.
You need a general direction when you describe!
For e.g: The fluffy white clouds floated across the sky like cotton candy. When I stared ahead, I marveled at how clear the crystal clear lake was. I took a few minutes to enjoy the tranquility of the lake before heading off. My boots trudged along the fresh green grass as I headed towards the rocky mountain. I was in for a steep climb. I wondered if I had brought enough water since the sun was so hot.
Not only did I describe with a direction in mind, I interweave my description of the scenery into the actions taken by my character. Describing a scenery does not mean you have to just describe a static picture in your mind. You have to immerse yourself in the scenery!
The next problem students face is when they describe action. No wait. Students don’t even describe action! What students do is write one sequence after another like this:
Johnny ran as fast as a cheetah to the finishing line and won. He then drank a bottle of water to hydrate himself. He heard them call his name and he went to the podium to retrieve his prize. It was his best day ever!
Most students can’t help but write a new action after every sentence. They can’t seem to find the words to describe and elaborate on a few actions. Hence, their compositions just comprise of action after action to mask their inability to write descriptively.
In my creative writing class, I train my students to focus just on ONE ACTION only and write a detailed description on it. For those that have been writing for months, they can usually write a full-page description on one simple action. Now imagine you are in my class and my task for you is simply – describe the man running. You are not allowed to write anything else!
Now you are forced to be very detailed. Imagine an up-close view of your character. You must be able to picture him vividly in your head. Now focus on just the action of running and put yourself in his shoes.
As John ran, beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. His feet fell into a rhythm and his thigh muscles propelled him forward, stride by stride, relentlessly, like a piston. The sun was behind him now but its rays shone down mercilessly on his back. He felt his wet, sweaty shirt clinging onto his skin. A pain slowly developed on the right side of his torso but it was still bearable. Nevertheless, he shrugged it off. The strange thing was: the longer he ran, the lighter he felt.
This is how descriptive writing should be. Not just saying “John ran as fast as a cheetah” and be done with it. Anyway, cliche idioms like that won’t win you any marks! Take your time to dwell upon an action. Focus on it. Imagine it up-close in your mind. Slow it down like a slow-motion replay. Refrain from jumping to the next scene. If you can do that effortlessly, you are almost there!
Students also forget that they can describe characters. In all the essays I review, the main character/s of the story tend to be soulless machines, merely carrying out the whims and commands of the writer, which in most cases, is to perform one activity after another. The students who are relatively new in my creative writing class will simply write like this when I tell them to describe the character.
Tommy is wearing a white fedora hat. He is wearing blue pants. He looks playful.
Other than just describing the physical and aesthetics of the character, you need to give him life.
– what’s his background or history?
– what’s his personality?
– any habits?
– what are his mannerisms?
Once you think of all these other factors that make up his character, describe him, with your physical descriptions of the character interspersed into the writing.
Tommy always had a knack for dressing well. His mother, a fashion designer, bought him a cool, white, fedora hat for his birthday and he had been wearing it ever since. Tommy was hyperactive. He could never sit still. Whenever he is forced to sit down to do his homework, he would find some excuses to get up and move around. He was also very expressive and confident despite his age, never shying away from the camera. The moment the camera lens turn towards him he would jump at it and give a playful pose. With his high cheek bones and big doleful eyes, his mother thinks that he has a chance to be a model in the future.
Focus on the Details
One general guideline I can give for descriptive writing is to focus on the details. You need to be able to not just see the scene vividly in your head, but also imagine that you are there.
Although descriptive writing is one of the hallmarks of a good essay, being overly-descriptive may also result in pointless sentences that serve no purpose to the plot or the reader. Strike a balance between moving a story along and dwelling on a description. Relevance is key in keeping your reader’s interested.
With that, I hope you put my tips into good use in your next essay!
By Jerry Lee
Intellicat Tuition School