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Writing Descriptively

Writing descriptively involves describing a setting, a person, or even an emotion. Writing a description allows you to fully engage your own imagination and that of your reader. Being restricted to the written word when evoking a three-dimensional, multi-sensory environment is a challenge, but, as you know, good authors can do precisely that. The key to writing a good description is to make full use of the English language and to think carefully about choosing exactly the right word for the impression you'd like to convey.

Try this English quiz to see how much you know about descriptive writing.

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  1. 'When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.'  In Alice Walker's description of the 'outdoor living room', from 'Everyday Use', which words are adjectives?
    Walker's description uses very simple adjectives effectively.  Her description would not be improved by using words like:  adamantine, dazzling, miniscule, or exquisite.  Packing sentences with the most impressive vocabulary you know can really detract from your description
  2. Which of the following would be most effective?
    Sometimes teachers advise pupils to imagine the scene as it would be filmed - this is good advice, as long as you remember to use all five senses - not vision alone
  3. In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the servant Calpurnia is described thus:  'She was all angles and bones; she was near-sighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed-slat and twice as hard.'  Which of the following examples of figurative language has Lee used here?
    Simile:  'her hand was wide as a bed-slat and twice as hard'.  Metaphor:  'She was all angles and bones'
  4. Descriptive writing often makes use of figurative language.  Which of the following is NOT an example of figurative language?
  5. In Louis Sachar's novel, The Cardturner, the narrator's wealthy uncle attends a bridge club which is described this way:  'If you were expecting a fancy club, with plush carpeting, leather chairs, wood panelling, and people sipping brandy and smoking cigars as they discuss the stock market, then you've come to the wrong place.'  What is the effect of this description?
    Louis Sachar does not describe the actual bridge club at all (beyond the number of tables and how they are arranged) - this leaves the reader to imagine exactly what the opposite of the 'fancy' club would be like
  6. In Charlie Connelly's Attention All Shipping, we read this description of the approach to the town, Haugesund:  'The roaring wind buffeted my progress and caused the sea to boil away to my left in huge fans of spume.  The tarmac wound between enormous rocks and the wind whistled tunelessly through the coarse, flattened grass.  Somewhere in the distance a rope clanged against a flagpole...'  Which word best describes the mood evoked by this description?
  7. Calpurnia's character description describes her hand as being 'wide as a bed-slat and twice as hard'.  What does this description accomplish?
    A good description usually does at least two jobs - it gives the reader a mental image of a scene or character, but it can also convey an atmosphere or feeling, or give an impression of a character's personality.  Sometimes it conveys the author's feeling about the scene or character
  8. What does it mean to write a 'sensory' description?
    Readers can almost imagine they are present in the scene when descriptive writing includes details from the five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight
  9. In the opening chapter to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, we find this description:  'A stilted heron laboured up into the air and pounded down river.'   This is a good example of...
    A precise verb choice is more effective than always combining verbs and adverbs
  10. What is the aim or purpose of writing descriptively?

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