One of the ways in which you can get involved in what you are writing and also get your readers involved is to vividly describe the people, places, things, experiences and situations in your writing. The ability to describe is a universal value of good writing (Nash & Stacey (1997). By all means, a detailed description is better than a general one. People usually prefer the concrete to the abstract. When a reader is able to visualise what the writer is trying to say through vivid descriptive devices, the reader understands better and identifies more with the work.
Not all writings demand colourful description, for example- scientific reports do not. Whatever means of description you employ depends on the purpose of the writing. Nash & Stacey (1997:130) summarise what readers do to most texts in the following extract- A reader assumes a passive receptive role. He looks at the picture, audits the lecture, accepts the revelation, beholds the scene, suspends disbelief, and admits into his consciousness this world the writer has made as the only world there is.
According to Nash & Stacey (1997), lively descriptions of people, places and things endow your text with energy and they involve the reader in your meaning. Your ability to describe is a way of making something look, sound, smell, taste, hear, feel or become more of what you want it to be. Description makes your writing memorable and appealing to whoever is going through it.
For you to practice the art of description, you have to be involved yourself. Section 3.1 presents an instance of imaginative description. Go through the example from Nash & Stacey (1997:132) in the next section.
Formal and thematic purposes of fictional description
Below is a descriptive text.
At almost one O’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned towards the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top. The escalators rose toward the mezzanine, where my office was. They were the free-standing kind: a pair of integral signs swooping upward between the two floors they served without struts or piers to bear ay intermediate weight. On sunny days like this one, a temporary, steeper escalator of daylight formed by intersections of the lobby’s towering volumes of marble and glass, met the real escalators just above their middle point, spreading into a needy area of shine where it fell against their brushed-steel side panels, and adding long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails which wavered slightly as the handrails slid on their tracks, like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of an LP. (Nash & Stacey (1997:132)
As the first paragraph of a novel, its main purpose is to establish the scene for the story. In this paragraph, a place is described. A man enters the building after lunch hour and he is carrying some things.
For you to be able to describe adequately, you need to engage in close observation and be able to identify and name the things that you see, their placement or position where they are placed. You can do this by closing your eyes and with your mind eye imagine what you see or what you used to see. Document the result of your mind’s journey. If possible, then go to the place and see things physically and document them again. In this way you have two lists which will be useful later when you want to write.
Apart from the fact that you need to observe closely you also have to do a close selection of the things you see and the ones you want to name and bring to focus so that they can match your narrative action. If you do not do this you may over do things. You can not possibly name everything you see. The reader would have to use their imagination to fill in the gaps in the world of the story or event being described. There is a relationship between descriptive detail and narrative action and they must fit one another. Fiction writers build a world that is close to the social world in which we live and the sensory images are the tools they use in building this world. Description of the scenes and actions are given but the description should not be done in such a way that it will overpower the action except it is required by the theme. What people do and say in the imagined world is what sustains our interest.
Formulate an Impression
Just imagine that you now have the list of things at the entrance of your faculty as you were asked to do in the exercise above. Decide on a point of view- that is- do you want to imagine yourself doing the action or someone else? It would either be ‘I’ or he /she etc. Having a point of view or creating one will make you actively participate in the story or narrative yourself. You must discover and create an impression. The impressions will be what you feel about a person an event or situation. You must examine yourself on why you think the way you do through the impression you have created. Your impression will guide the selection of the details you include in the narrative. The details must then fit into the plot of the story. Do you know that if you believe that the entrance of your faculty is beautiful, you will create that impression with the way you describe the details.
Practise Free Writing
Writing is a way of expressing yourself. And one of the types of writing that is common among students is free writing. What is important is for the ideas to flow and as long as you keep on writing, whatever is wrong in your writing can always be corrected. Let us imagine that you want to write on the entrance of your faculty as we mentioned earlier. You already have the list with you and you have also gone through the place again to reconfirm your mind selection. You can then start by trying to put something on paper. Many students ask themselves ‘how am I going to start? Just start any how. Put your pen or pencil on paper and start writing. Look up at the title and write something. You may discover that you have cancelled a lot of things and that the work is rough. Do not mind the mistakes. The advantage of this type of writing is that you arealone and nobody sees those mistakes. After you have scribbled for some time, stop and go over what you have written. Try to correct them if you can at that point in time or you can sleepover it and then try to see how you can correct the paragraph or page.
If you ask most writers, they will tell you about this experience of theirs and how they got over it. The approach you have been told is at best good for long story writers who are not under any examination pressure. As a student writing a descriptive essay in an examination, what takes the place of free writing is concentrated thought. Description is used to create worlds for creative writing, literary journals, personal letters, stories and plays, travel accounts, poetry and memoirs. In some otherexpository or stricter forms of academic writing, writers do not try to create independent scenes, situations or worlds.
In descriptive essays, you have to involve your readers as you explore the topic through naming and detailing of events, people and places. For classroom exercises which are meant to be submitted immediately or during examinations, you have to take time out- preferably seven to eight minutes to think and just organise your thoughts. You just do not pick up your biro and start writing without doing some free thinking about the topic and how to go about it. You just go ahead and use words to describe your observations.