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What does describe mean?

This is easy to define:

 To give an account or representation of a place, a person or an event, real or imagined.

If you are asked to describe something, make your description as clear and as vivid as possible.

Part 1: Writing About Places

A. Look at this example of an actual students’ work. This first description is of a place:

I was born on a small island in the Caribbean between two French islands. The land is named
Dominica, it is a small mountainous island covered with lush rainforest so when the hot Caribbean
sun shone on it the whole island glowed a passionate mixture of dark and light greens. This is why
most of the locals called it ‘De green jem of de Caribbean man.’ I lived not close to the beach, I lived
high up in the mountainous parts of the rainforest where it stayed cool and moist.

This first extract is both clear and vivid. Try to think about how this has been achieved. The
following should get you thinking.
 The setting is established clearly in the first two sentences
 Precise adjectives – ‘small mountainous’, ‘lush’, ‘hot’ – tell us what we want to know
 More interesting, colourful language is used to create special effects – ‘a passionate
mixture of dark and light greens.’
 The use of local dialect (like kling-klings in Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom) makes it
sound more authentic and real.

Is there anything else which you thought worked well? Add you own ideas/examples to the list

 Whilst this is a good example of descriptive writing there are some punctuation errors.
Can you spot them? Is there anything you don’t like about the writing? How do you
think it could be improved upon?
B. Now we are going to look at some further examples of good descriptive writing, this
time from accomplished writers. In this extract from his book ‘My Family and Other
Animals’ Gerald Durrell has used a lot of figurative language to create setting.

The olives seemed weighed down under the weight of their fruit, smooth drops of green jade among
which the choirs of cicadas zithered. In the orange groves, among the dark and shiny leaves, the fruit
was starting to glow redly, like a blush spreading up the green, pitted skins.
Up on the hills, among the dark cypress and heather, shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like
wind-blown confetti. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew
drunkenly across the heather, their wings shining in the sun.
N.B. Cicadas are small insects; zithered is to make the sound of a zither (a small stringed musical instrument) and a cypress is a type of tree.

Can you see how the writer has effectively described this particular setting? Consider how the
following techniques have been used, identifying where they appear in the extract itself.
 Does Durrell use any interesting images here?
 What about noises – onomatopoeia?
 What else do you find interesting in the writing?

Is there anything else which you found striking? Add you own ideas/examples to the list

C. Now let’s look at another extract from the same novel. In one of the most beautiful
pieces of description in the book, Gerard Durrell writes about seeing the new house on
Corfu when his family moved there from England. He calls it ‘The Strawberry-Pink Villa’:

Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink
villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as
if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.
The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its
shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy-green, cracked and bubbled in places. The
garden, surrounded by tall fuschia hedges, had the flower beds worked in complicated geometrical
patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake's
head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars,
half-moons, triangles, and circles all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild. Roses
dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame-red, moon-white, glossy, and
unwrinkled; marigolds like broods of shaggy suns stood watching their parent's progress through the
sky. In the low growth the pansies pushed their velvety, innocent faces through the leaves, and the
violets drooped sorrowfully under their heart-shaped leaves. The bougainvillaea that sprawled
luxuriously over the tiny iron balcony was hung, as though for a carnival, with its lantern-shaped
magenta flowers. In the darkness of the fuschia-hedge a thousand ballerina-like blooms quivered
expectantly. The warm air was thick with the scent of a hundred dying flowers, and full of the gentle,
soothing whisper and murmur of insects.
Re-read this extract carefully and try to identify how the author has achieved such evocative
description. You should consider the following and be ready to discuss your thoughts with
reference to the text itself.

 How does Durrell make the villa sound idyllic?

 Which phrases are particularly vivid?

D. In ‘Taking on the World’, Ellen MacArthur uses description well to appeal to our senses
when describing the situation she found herself in. Let’s consider the following short

Luckily with all the pulling I managed to create enough slack to make it to the top, but now I was even
more exhausted. I squinted at the grey cloud above me and watched the mast-head whip across the
clouds. The wind whistled past us, made visible by the snow that had begun to fall. Below the sea
stretched out forever, the size and length of the waves emphasised by this new aerial view. This is
what it must look like to the albatross.

What words and phrases are used in this descriptive section to help the reader to feel what
Ellen is experiencing? You should look for:

 Words and phrases which help us see what is happening;

 Words and phrases which help us hear what is happening.

E. We’re now going to look at a slightly longer extract. This one is taken from the novel ‘If
Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor. In it the place being depicted
is described from the viewpoint of an observer, almost like a ‘floating head’.

You should read the following extract carefully and be ready to comment on it.

A City at Night

If you listen, you can hear it.

The city, it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things,
when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt
what it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.

The low soothing hum of air-conditioners, fanning out the heat and the smells of shops
and cafes and offices across the city, winding up and winding down, long breaths
layered upon each other, a lullaby hum for tired streets.
The rush of traffic still cutting across flyovers, even in the dark hours a constant crush of
sound, tyres rolling across tarmac and engines rumbling, loose drains and manhole
covers clack-clacking like cast-iron castanets.
Road-menders mending, choosing the hours of least interruption, rupturing the cold
night air with drills and jack-hammers and pneumatic pumps, hard-sweating beneath
the fizzing hiss of floodlights, shouting to each other like drummers in rock bands calling
out rhythms, pasting new skin on the veins of the city.
Restless machines in workshops and factories with endless shifts, turning and pumping and steaming
and sparking, pressing and rolling and weaving and printing, the hard crash and ring and clatter lifting
out of echo-high buildings and sifting into the night, an unaudited product beside the paper and cloth
and steel and bread, the packed and the bound and the made.
Lorries reversing, right round the arc of industrial parks, it seems every lorry in town is reversing,
backing through gateways, easing up ramps, shrill-calling their presence while forklift trucks gas and
prang around them, heaping and stacking and loading.
And all the alarms, calling for help, each district and quarter, each street and estate, each every way
you turn has alarms going off, coming on, going off, coming on, a hammered ring like a lightning
drum-roll, like a mesmeric bell-toll, the false and the real as loud as each other, crying their needs to
the night like an understaffed orphanage, babies waawaa-ing in darkened wards.
Sung sirens, sliding through the streets, streaking blue light from distress to distress, the slow wail
weaving urgency through the darkest of the dark hours, a lament lifted high, held above the rooftops
and fading away, lifted high, flashing past, fading away.

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey
and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all
come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the
counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices.

So listen.
Listen, and there is more to hear.
The rattle of a dustbin lid knocked to the floor.
The scrawl and scratch of two hackle-raised cats.
The sudden thunder crash of bottles emptied into crates. The slam-slam of car doors, the changing of
gears, the hobbled clip-clop of a slow walk home.
The rippled roll of shutters pulled down on late-night cafes, a crackled voice crying street names for
taxis, a loud scream that lingers and cracks into laughter, a bang that might just be an old car
backfiring, a callbox calling out for an answer, a tree full of birds tricked into morning, a whistle and a
shout and a broken glass, a blaze of soft music and a blam of hard beats, a barking and yelling and
singing and crying and it all swells up all the rumbles and crashes and bangings and slams, all the
noise and the rush and the non-stop wonder of the song of the city you can hear if you listen to the

Now try to answer the following questions. Try to give as much detail as you can.

1. The extract has a lot of images. Which similes and metaphors do you consider to be
very effective?
2. Did you find the use of the word ‘you’ to be a good tool in making the reader interested?
3. Which sounds do you think particularly sound like the city at night? Which
comparisons work here?
4. The writer uses a lot of verbs in a row – why does he do that?
5. The writer uses an extended metaphor for the city – it’s an orchestra. Which images and
sounds show this?
Assignment 1
OK, you have now looked at a number of different examples of effective descriptive writing which
have focused upon describing places. You have seen how writer use a range of techniques to
achieve their effects. It is now time to try to put some of this into practise yourself.

You should choose one of the following writing tasks to complete as homework.

1. Write about the same place at two different times of the day.


2. Describe a place that is special to you and bring out the reasons for this.

Whichever task you choose you should aim to produce at least two sides of A4 and to include as
many different techniques as possible. Remember, you should be looking to sustain the descriptive
nature of your writing throughout the entirety of your response.
Part 2: Writing About People

We’re now going to shift our focus to looking at how we can describe people more effectively. The
next description is of a person. When you’re writing about a character there are a number of things
you may wish to consider:

 What the character looks like

 What the character says and thinks
 How the character behaves
 What other characters say or think about them

F. Let’s look at the first example. Again, this was written by an actual student:

I had always been close to my grandfather, far closer than my siblings, as with their schoolwork and
their exams they had little spare time for an old man in an armchair, and yet it was that which so
endeared him to me, as if the fact that he could not often move beyond that armchair marred his life
not at all, as if indeed the chair became his life. Everything I could ever need was in that chair, or
within child’s reach of it, and the occupant’s off-colour jokes and wisecracks about those ‘nuts in
parliament’ made his room home for me as much as my own.
It was difficult to think of him as he had once been. He had been a soldier, someone who was
prepared to sacrifice his life for his country. Now he had shrunk to a size shorter than me, his cheeks
had sunk in, his skin was covered in ageing spots and his hair had nearly all gone. He walked with
difficulty and, because he was too proud to use a stick, you had to watch to make sure he didn’t fall
over which he did quite regularly.

Yet this was the man who had taught me everything that was worth learning – to stand up for my
beliefs, to challenge what I knew was wrong, to cheat at cards, and to belch and break wind at the
same time.

What did you think? Overall, this is a powerful and evocative description of an elderly man. It
is well-structured (apart from a convoluted first sentence) and accurately expressed. What
else makes it work? Make a list of features you found were good about it and compare it with
the list below. Be sure to add your ideas/example:

 Adventurous choice of words – ‘siblings’, ‘endeared’, ‘wisecracks’

 Describing the grandfather in the context of the chair gives a context to the writing, like
a photograph
 Telling details, such as the ‘ageing spots’ make it vivid
 The use of contrast – he was a proud soldier but is now a shrunken old man
 Humour – the last sentence
 Leaving the lessons the man taught the writer for the final paragraph
G. The example you have just looked at what clearly a positive depiction of the character in
question. What about making the old person sitting in the chair (slightly) scary?

How do you think you would go about achieving this? Produce a short list outlining your
initial thoughts on how you think this could be done.

Now let’s read the following from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. This extract
describes the main protagonist Pip meeting an old lady called Miss Havisham for the first

Whether I should have made out this object so soon, if there had been no fine lady sitting at it, I
cannot say. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat
the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white.
And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her
hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels
lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks,
were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other
was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on,
and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and
some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first
moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white,
had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within
the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the
brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young
woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had
been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible
personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton
in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now,
waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried
out, if I could.

Before we go any further try to answer the following questions. You should give as much
detail as you can. Try to write a paragraph for each question. Your responses should focus
upon how the writer has achieved these particular effects. Try to include examples and refer
to specific techniques the author has used.
1. What do you think has happened to Miss Havisham?
2. How has she been living for a very long time?
3. How does Dickens make her seem scary, unreal? What comparisons does he make?
4. What impression do you get of Miss Havisham?
Extension task: Write a one page description about a person who is either very sinister and strange or
a person who is very friendly and welcoming.

H. This next extract is taken from a short horror story called ‘Dead Language Master’ by
Joan Aiken.

Mr Fletcher taught us Latin. He was the shape of a domino. No, that’s wrong, because he wasn’t
square; he looked as though he had been cut out of a domino. He had shape but no depth, you felt as
though he could have slipped through the crack at the hinge of a door if he’d gone sideways. Though
I daresay if he had really been abale to do that he would have made more use of the faculty; he was
great at stealing quietly along a passage and then opening the door really fast to see what we were
all up to; he used to drift about silently, like an old ghost, but if you had a keen sense of smell you
always had advance warning of his arrival because of the capsule of cigarette smoke that he moved
about in. He smoked non-stop; he used a holder, but even so his fingers were yellow up to the
knuckles and so were his teeth when he bared them in a horse-grin. He had dusty black hair that
hung in a lank flop over his big square forehead, and his feet were enormous; they curved as he put
them down, like a duck’s flippers, which, I suppose, was why he could move so quickly....If someone
kicked up a disturbance at the back of the classroom he’d first screw up his eyes and stick his head
out, so that he looked like a snake, weaving his head about to try and focus on the person who was
making the row; then he’d start slowly down the aisle, thrusting his face between each line of desks; I
can tell you it was quite an unnerving performance....
None of our lot cared greatly for Latin, we didn’t see the point of it, so we didn’t have much in
common with old Fletcher. We thought he was a funny old coot, a total square – he used words like
‘topping’ and ‘ripping’ which he must have picked out of the Boy’s Own Paper in the nineteen-tens.
He was dead keen on his subject and would have taught it quite well if anyone had been interested;
the only time you saw a wintry smile light up his yellow face was when he was pointing out the
beauties of some construction in Livy or Horace.

N.B. The last sentence is referring to varying sentence construction in the works of two Latin authors.
By looking at the extract, complete the grid below stating as many examples as you can:

Mr Fletcher Example What this reveals

He had no shape or depth Makes him seem like he’s not

Appearance really there



What he says

What others think of


Assignment 2
It is now time to practise writing descriptively about people.

You should choose one of the following writing tasks to complete as homework.

1. Write a description of a person of your choice.


2. Write an article for a newspaper, giving an eyewitness account of a memorable event.

As with the ‘Writing about places’ assignment, whichever task you choose you should aim to produce
at least two sides of A4 and to include as many different techniques as possible. Remember, you
should be looking to sustain the descriptive nature of your writing throughout the entirety of your
Part 3: Writing About Events

Finally, we are going to look briefly at the requirements for describing events. If you are going to write
about an event then you are almost certainly going to need to combine describing the following,
although the exact manner in which you would do this would be dependent upon the question:

 place
 people
 actions

You will also need to give carefully consideration as to how you will effectively create a sense of:

 atmosphere
 emotion

I. Look at this short example written by a student. It describes the experience of spending
time in a hospital waiting room.

All I could hear was the obnoxious ticking of the clock, the incessant whirring of the menacing
apparatus which surrounded me. Wires hung listlessly from cold, rusty rods as the machine's lights
flickered off and on. The barren white walls seemed to close in on me. That these walls held stories of
broken hearts and wasted wishes, dreams that were never to be realised, was indisputable. One
chair in particular drew my attention; its worn, frayed cushion exposed itself from underneath its dull
blue seat. As my eyes began to focus and grow accustomed to the stark hospital strip lights, I fixated
upon one further imperfection - a small chip in the paintwork on the ceiling that loomed ominously
over the stiff, scratch formality of the hospital bed across the hall. As I looked to my right, I saw
bodies in crisp white coats slide back and forth. These inhuman creatures glided lifelessly - as if in
slow motion – room to room. I saw pained expressions on the faces of the impatient visitors with
whom I was waiting. The noise of so many fretful thumbs, flipping aimlessly through battle weary
magazines, boomed and reverberated around the room and was interrupted only by frequent yet
irregular pauses signalling an expectant glance at the insufferable timepiece on the wall.

What do you think? There are both strengths and weaknesses here. Re-read the passage
carefully and assess the extent to which the student has successfully described place, people
and actions. Is a sense of atmosphere and emotion effectively evoked? Identify 2 or 3
sentences which you feel could be improved upon and re-write them.

J. Look at the following extract from the novel Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.

It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind
brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock
in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in
mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it
penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have
beena small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging
the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times
shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high
ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking
between the high wheels like a drunken man.

The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint endeavour to
gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too
broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while
it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.

The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road, and sometimes
they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving
rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured.

The few passengers huddled together for warmth, exclaiming in unison when the coach sank into a
heavier rut than usual, and one old fellow, who had kept up a constant complaint ever since he had
joined the coach at Truro, rose from his seat in a fury; and, fumbling with the window-sash, let the
window down with a crash, bringing a shower of rain upon himself and his fellow-passengers. He
thrust his head out and shouted up to the driver, cursing him in a petulant voice for a rogue and a
murderer; that they would all be dead before they reached Bodmin if he persisted in driving at
breakneck speed; they had no breath left in their bodies as it was, and he for one would never travel
by coach again.

Answer the following questions as fully as you can:

1. What is the event being described?

2. What atmosphere is being created here? How is this achieved?
3. How does description of place contribute to the overall effect?
4. How does description character add to the piece?

You should also consider the use the writer makes of the following:

 Interesting adjectives, verbs and adverbs

 A combination of sentence types
 Varied punctuation

Make brief notes on these points, identifying appropriate examples and their effects.

Assignment 3
This final task is designed to get you to practise you skills in writing descriptively about a particular

You should choose one of the following writing tasks to complete as homework.

1. Write a description of a personal experience of visiting somewhere such as a doctor’s clinic,

dentist’s surgery, Principal’s office or police station.

2. Describe a public event of your choosing. Something such as National Day, a sports event,
theatre performance or concert would be suitable.

As with the previous two assignments, whichever task you choose you should aim to produce at least
two sides of A4 and to include as many different techniques as possible. Remember, you should be
looking to sustain the descriptive nature of your writing throughout the entirety of your response.

Extension & Revision Tasks

 There are lots of useful resources on ‘Writing to Describe’ which can be found by opening the
following hyperlink. These are well worth a look. The main section provides lots of detail and
examples on techniques which will improve your ability to write descriptively.

 In particular, I would also advise you to undertake a close reading of the three examples of
professional descriptive writing you will find at the link below. Consider carefully the questions
posed in the ‘CONTROLLING IDEA / THEME / MESSAGE’ sections that follow each of the
extracts and make appropriate notes. You may wish to copy and paste the extracts into Word
for future reference. You can then make notes or annotate in whatever manner you see fit.

 This annotated description of a visit to a fairground is also worth a look:

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