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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Writing a descriptive text

We all need to write a descriptive text occasionally. Perhaps we are writing to tell a friend how our holiday is going, or want to review a restaurant on social media. Students are often set descriptive texts in essays for exams, because descriptive texts require a good vocabulary and other language skills.

Typical topics for descriptive essays are:

  • Describe the town you live in
  • Tell us about the place where you spend your free time
  • Describe a memorable place you have visited
  • What would your ideal home look like?
  • Describe your favourite pet/person

Points to note

Descriptive essays are 'static'. That is to say there is no narrative, or beginning or end. However, this does not mean that a description should not have a structure.

Unless you are writing a technical description, a description should be emotive it should bring out feelings of happiness, comfort, anger, serenity or whatever other mood you intend your description to carry.

A description is more than just about 'painting a picture with words' it should engage the reader with moods, memories and the senses sounds, smells and sensations.

Don't overload your adjectives. A good description should make the reader feel 'there' seeing what you see, feeling what you feel. A long list of adjectives before every noun has the opposite effect. It makes reading your text feel like work.

Simile and metaphor are useful tools for a description but use them appropriately, and don't over-use them. Also, be consistent. 'Mixing metaphors' is a common error.

(A mixed metaphor is when you describe something using two objects that don't go together. For example, 'Sally's character is not my cup of tea. It rubs me up the wrong way.' If something is 'not your cup of tea', it does not suit your personality. If something 'rubs you up the wrong way', it irritates you. Both are usable metaphors, but when combined, you are getting rubbed up the wrong way by a cup of tea. How does that work?)

Be specific. For example, instead of saying 'It was a scary dog', explain why the dog was scary. 'The dog was large, with bristling fur and teeth showing in a snarl.' Or again instead of saying, 'It was a nice day' tell your reader about the day. 'The sun was hot, but the breeze was cool, the only clouds were thin, high and fluffy.'

Structure

With a descriptive text, you should start by putting your subject into context. Too often, writers plunge straight into the description. 'Toby has short, brown hair and big, green eyes. He is very friendly and always ready to play.' A descriptive start but is Toby a cat, or your favourite uncle? Make that clear first.

Go from general to more precise, not the other way around. So if describing your town, say, 'The High Street has many shops. My favourite is a small corner coffee bar where the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.' This is better than 'There is a relaxed and friendly coffee bar on the High Street. The High Street has many shops.'

If you add a conclusion, make it just a short sentence. For example, 'My town might be nothing special, but all my friends and memories are here. It is my home.' or 'The food is good, but the arrogant and incompetent staff make this a restaurant to avoid.'

Putting it together

Here are two short descriptive texts. One describes a favourite place, and the other is a review of a sweater purchased online.

I.

My life is always crowded with appointments, meetings and schedules. When I need a break, it has to be somewhere quiet, serene and relaxing. The little resort town of Nevica is all of those things. It is my favourite place for a weekend break.

There are huge, grey mountains all around the town, and there is snow on the peaks even in summer. The city might be humid and sweaty, but Nevica always has a cool breeze from the mountain, and the air feels cold and pure. We usually stay in a log cabin on a hillside above the town. Sometimes the town is hidden by low clouds, so the cabin seems to be alone in a clearing in the pine forest, with a sea of cloud just below.

In the city the sky is something you see between the tall buildings. Here, the sky above is a very deep blue, and you can't help noticing it. At night, even when it is chilly, it is wonderful to sit outside and see the stars spread across the heavens, to smell the scent of the pine woods, and hear nothing but the soft hoot of an owl in the silence.

II.

This sweater was purchased by my brother as a Christmas gift for me. It looks just like the picture in the sales catalogue, but the picture does not tell the whole story.

The pattern is of white snowflakes on a dark blue background. It is cleverly done, with the snowflakes swirling down from the shoulder and spreading in a fan towards the waist. Also, the size was exactly right. The sweater looks good on me, and I'll certainly be wearing it on outdoor occasions this winter.

According to the description, the fabric is 'part-cashmere'. Cashmere is supposed to be soft and silky, but this sweater feels hard and scratchy. When I wore it over a T-shirt my arms felt as though they were being rubbed with sandpaper. It's no use having something that looks good on the outside if it is so uncomfortable inside.

Also, the label says you can't machine wash or dry clean it. I tried hand-washing, and a lot of colour came out. I guess this sweater is an example of the saying 'It looks good from far, but it is far from good'.

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