2017 Steve Campsall

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writing to describe - examples


In each of the following extracts, a close reading will reveal that the writer is not merely describing things for the sake of it (which good writers never do); instead, the writers are using the technique of description as a means to create, in subtle and compelling ways, layers of meaning that help the reader understand the theme of the writing. In a very real way, these pieces are equally as persuasive as they are descriptive.

Notice, too, that the writers are using language that often acts by showing by creating mental imagery; this is so much more effective than merely 'telling' . This is done by describing the effect on the five senses - by using what is called sensory description. Much of this is done using metaphors and similes, e.g. 'like a heap of precious stones...' and '...as in one long sigh' . You should try to copy this technique in your own writing.

Can you also recognise how each author carefully chooses very precise vocabulary such as 'luminous' and 'impetuous'? This acts to create a far more vivid mental image than would have been the case if simpler or less precise vocabulary had been used, even if this had been supported by adjectives. In your own writing, you should try to use varied and precise a vocabulary.

Finally - something else to look for that you should incorporate in your own descriptions: a sense of atmosphere or mood. Notice how the writers below create this and how it helps you - the reader - to engage with the content of the texts. Often, a mental landscape is created in descriptive writing. This term applies to when the setting is used to reflect the inner mind of the characters in a scene. A mental landscape is used to help create a suitable mood or atmosphere. An example is when, in a ghost story, a grey, dark day is described to set the mood for the characters and action to unfold eerily similarly when things are happy, the sun usually shines!

1. From 'Out of Africa' by Isak Dinesen

'In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail.

Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag...'

Can you recognise that Dinesen's intention, by choosing and focusing her description very carefully indeed, is not to show merely what the iguana looked like, but something far deeper connected with spirituality and life?

2. From 'The Shooting of an Elephant' by George Orwell

'When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick - one never does when a shot goes home - but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time - it might have been five seconds, I dare say - he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay...'


Can you recognise that Orwell's intention, by choosing and focusing what he describes and how he describes it, is not only to show the process of shooting and dying but in so doing, to highlight with deep poignancy, the dignity of life?

3. From 'Hard Times' by Charles Dickens

'[Coketown] was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.

It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next...'

Can you work out Dickens' controlling idea behind this unusually effective piece of descriptive writing? The writer's intention, by choosing and focusing his description so very carefully, is to show not only what Coketown was like, but to highlight what the quality of life was like in this industrial town and in so doing to create a deep sympathy for the people caught up in such a dire situation and perhaps to instil a dislike of the people who create such towns.