Dr. Kristi Siegel
English Department
Mount Mary College

Using Effective Description

What do we want when we read?  It's hard to tell.  Certainly, though, we want content and details; we want to be able to see, feel, and hear what a writer is describing.  Using description--knowing what details to put in and what details to omit--takes skill.  An over-written, pretentious description is as Engfish-y as a description that is vague and filled with generalizations and cliches. 

Remember, too, that description affects pacing.  If you describe everything in detail, nothing stands out.  Description is a way of focusing in; you should reserve detailed descriptions for moments in your essay that you want to emphasize.  In my Kippi narrative, for example, the point at which I open the car door and see the "chomped" interior would be a good spot for a detailed description.

The first two descriptions below are examples of Engfish: one is too vague and cliched, and the other is over-written and pretentious.  The third, an excerpt from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, demonstrates the power of honest, detailed description.

A vague description ...

My grandmother worried a lot about us being clean.  Even when it was really cold outside we had to go out and wash up.  She thought being clean was really important.  It was really cold when we had to wash outside.  But my grandmother thought getting clean was pretty important, I guess.  It's hard, though, to wash when you're really cold.

Notice that when you are vague and speak in general terms, your writing is flat and repetitive.  Once you've stated your generality (my grandmother wanted us to be clean or it was cold washing up outside), you've stated it.  In the example above--because there is no detail or specific content--the same material keeps being repeated

A overdone, pretentious description ...

My aged grandmother, whose mellow, warm voice I remember yet, would use her harsher, sterner voice when she forcefully coerced us out into the bitter cold of the frosty, chlll winter to cleanse ourselves.  Even in this brisk, frigid atmosphere, where each breath we drew made clouds floated visibly into the night air, we would be forced to disrobe and wash our limbs as meticulously and conscientiously as possible. 

When you use too much detail--and it's as insincere and wordy as in the example above--it has the same effect as using too few details: you fail to communicate, and your reader--if fortunate--lapses into a coma.

Maya Angelou's description ...

"Thou shall not be dirty" and "Thou shall not be impudent" were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation.

Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash faces, arms, necks, legs and feet before going to bed.  She used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can't control when venturing into profanity, "and wash as far as possible, then wash possible."

We would go to the well and wash in the ice-cold, clear water, grease our legs with the equally cold, stiff Vaseline, then tiptoe into the house.  We wiped the dust from our toes and settled down for schoolwork, cornbread, clabbered milk, prayers and bed, always in that order.  Momma was famous for pulling the quilts off after we had fallen asleep to examine our feet.  If they weren't clean enough for her, she took the switch (she kept one behind the bedroom door for emergencies) and woke up the offender with a few aptly placed burning reminders.

... Of the three descriptions above, which one would you rather read?  Which one do you remember?

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