“Descriptive writing is an art form. It’s painting a word picture so that the reader ‘sees’ exactly what you are describing.”
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What’s the big deal about writing descriptively? For one thing, it’s much more than page-filling fluff. Descriptive writing imprints images into the reader’s mind, making you feel as though you’re “right there.” It‘s all about engaging the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to transport the reader and stir emotion. By choosing vivid details and colorful words, good writers bring objects, people, places, and events to life. Instead of merely telling you what they see, they use their words to show you.
Writers use this powerful method to make their pieces memorable—even brilliant—rather than dry and boring. In many ways, description is the most important kind of writing you can teach your children. Why? Because it supports other reasons for writing such as storytelling, informative reports, or persuasion.
Even if your child never aspires to write stories or poetry, description is a wonderful skill to develop. Without it, all other writing falls flat.
Describing a Place
Vivid writing is especially important when describing a place — whether to describe a vista for a travel guide or flesh out a scene in a novel.
Master storyteller Charles Dickens was also a master of using description to create a mood.
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. ~Charles Dickens, Hard Times
But your child doesn’t have to be a Dickens to add color, depth, and interest to his writing. Here, a ninth grader draws on all five senses to describe a place and create a mood.
Moist and salty, a chilly breeze blows in across the swells, bringing with it the pungent smells of seaweed and fish and making me pull my jacket a little closer. Sea spray transforms into fiery prisms as the waves splash against the shore, catch the last golden rays of sun, and toss them up like liquid crystals.
With a few tips and tools, your child can effectively describe a place too.
Suppose he’s planning to write about a desert. He’ll need to describe basic desert features, of course: sand, rock, hills, and dunes. But deserts aren’t all alike, so his word choices will need to reflect the kind of desert he wants to write about. For example, if he chooses a desert in the southwestern United States, he’ll probably describe plants such as sagebrush, Joshua trees, yuccas, or saguaro cacti.
But if he’s writing about an oasis in the Sahara Desert, where vegetation is much different, he would instead describe date palms, oleanders, acacia trees, succulents, and desert grasses. His description of either desert scene will spring to life as he tells about these places using rich and appropriate details.
Finding Vocabulary for Describing a Place
How do you help your child study his subject and choose strong words that make his writing sparkle? Whether he decides to write about a desert, city, rain forest, or pond, these ideas will help him find words that will form the foundation of his descriptive piece, narrative story, or report.
Using a Search Engine
Search engines such as Google make a great resource for inspiration. In addition to collecting general terms about the location’s flora and fauna (the desert, for example), he’ll also find concrete, specific nouns and adjectives that add color to his writing. Suggest that he begin his search by looking up terms like these:
- desert landscape
- desert features
- desert climate
- desert plants
- desert animals
- desert description
What if your child wants to describe a city instead of a desert? City words are trickier to find, and he may have to hunt more. Try some of these search terms:
- describe city sights
- describe Chicago, describe Pittsburgh, etc.
- “describe downtown” (use quotes)
Using Other Sources
While search engines can lead you to a wealth of information, don’t discount the value of print media such as magazines and books. Also consider digital media such as TV documentaries or DVDs about the subject.
When describing a place, visit in person, if possible. But if not, can you explore a spot with similar features? Many children are visual and tactile learners. If your child wants to describe what a sidewalk looks like, how about taking him outside to explore the sidewalk on your street? It will help him describe the texture, color, and appearance of a city sidewalk, even if you live in a suburb.
As your child searches the Internet, ask him to keep an eye out for adjectives that describe desert or city features (or whatever place he wants to write about). Encourage him to come up with words on his own, but also to watch for words he meets in articles or photo captions.
If he doesn’t understand some of the words, pull out the dictionary and make it a teaching moment! And show him how to use a thesaurus (we love The Synonym Finder[aff]) to find other words that say the same thing. Both of these exercises will help his vocabulary to grow.
Some Desert Adjectives
Desert:harsh, dry, arid, sparse, severe, hot
Rock:sharp, rough, jagged, angular
Grasses:windblown, bent, dry, pale green, brown
Sand:coarse, fine, glittering, shifting, rippling, sifting, white, golden
Sky:pale, intense, cloudless, azure, purple, crimson
Cactus:tall, short, squatty, spiny, prickly, thorny
Date palm:tall, bent, leather (leaves), frayed (leaves)
Some City Adjectives
City:active, bustling, noisy, busy, clean, dirty, windy
Traffic:loud, congested, snarled
Buildings:old, shabby, rundown, crumbling, modern, futuristic, sleek, towering, squat
Buildings (walls):brick, stone, marble, glass, steel, graffiti-covered
Monuments, statues:stone, copper, carved, ancient, moss-covered, faded, green, bronze
Sidewalk:concrete, cement, slick, cracked, tidy, littered, swept
Paint:fresh, weathered, peeling
Signs:neon, weathered, worn, bright, welcoming, flashing
Buses, cars, taxis:belching, crawling, speeding, honking, waiting, screeching
People:hurried, bundled, smiling, frowning, eager, rushed
Use these suggestions to encourage your child come up with ideas for describing a place of his own. You’ll both discover that hunting for words can become a favorite pre-writing game! And as your child dabbles more and more in descriptive writing, I’m confident his words will soon begin to “show” more and “tell” less.
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Do you struggle with teaching and grading writing? Does your child’s writing need a boost? Consider adding WriteShop to your curriculum choices for this school year!
The first seven lessons of WriteShop I specifically teach your teen descriptive writing. This important skill is then practiced in the remaining informative and narrative writing lessons. In addition, WriteShop teaches—and offers practice in using—a wide array of sentence variations that help to enhance a student’s paper with fresh style and vigor. When combined with strong, dynamic word choices, sentence variations give dull writing new life.
For younger children, WriteShop Primary introduces K-3rd graders to activities that widen their writing vocabulary. Book C contains three specific descriptive writing lessons. WriteShop Junior, for upper elementary, also provides many opportunities for students to incorporate description.
Learn more here.
Photos: Alice, Dietmar Temps, & Phillip Capper, courtesy of Creative Commons
The most inimitable place to be, besides in my husband’s arms, is Harrogate, Tennessee. The rolling hills, clean crisp air, and spaciousness all surpass the city life. The memories and joy I experience when I am there will always have a special place in my heart.
My house resided in the country. A cow field was my backyard, and I would play hide and seek with my friends behind the hay bales. From the moment we got home and put our Bratz Doll backpacks down until the moment the pinkish, yellow sun was setting, my friends and I were always in a new adventure. At times, the golden rays would shine and radiate without a cloud in the sky. The gentle breeze was just enough to make it comfortable. The grass had already dried from the early morning dew, making it look freshly cut and greener than ever. As we would run around making up games to play, my black and white English Springer Spaniel, otherwise known as Bubba, would follow us eagerly with his wet teeming tongue hanging out of his parched mouth and his tail wagging like a hammer in an ongoing alarm clock. In Knoxville, the population and space is far too crowded to enjoy pleasures like those in Harrogate. In a way, it is suffocating here, and I miss the feeling of peace and contentment when at home.
During winter season, it would snow fervently. My yard also consisted of a rather giant slope. Due to many hills and back roads that would get black ice very easily, school was called off frequently. My friends and I would get so excited and call each other to make plans to go sledding! I would jump in my thick, white leggings and blue nylon pants along with three pairs of socks and waterproof shoes. On top I would have two under shirts, two regular shirts, a small jacket, a large heavy jacket and a toboggan on. Layered and ready for the cold, I would run outside and find my aqua green plastic sled from underneath the back porch. It was crisp and cold outside, and the snow was a clean white ready to be destroyed by the power of my sled. Hours later our paths would be perfectly carved in the snow, and we would be ready to go in and change to dry clothes, watch a movie, and drink a cup of hot chocolate. Snow doesn’t fall in the city, and even if it did, there is no room to go sledding. These memories will not be forgotten.
When summertime came around again, the park was a popular place to be. I always made new friends, and there was always so much to do with these new acquaintances. Activities consisted of playing basketball at the court, playing in the sand, riding bikes, and rollerblading on the trail, playing on the jungle gym and tire swing, swinging, and so much more! Once my mom and I had our picture taken on the swings and put in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Sometimes the church congregation would have a picnic for everyone there, and we would grill and enjoy each other’s company. Even family reunions have been held there. The people in Harrogate are country people, down to earth, and content with the simple life. They are not concerned with the greatest and latest of things. This made the events at the park so much more enjoyable.
If I could, I would go back and relive some of these memories. No matter where I go, Harrogate will be home in my heart. No matter my age, Harrogate holds some of the most memorable and cherishing parts of my life.