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BETTER WRITING TECHNIQUES: Brilliant description

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

WORKSHOP: Learning about description from experienced writers

One of the great joys when reading is the way a writer brings something to life in our imagination. The world-wide success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was certainly because her characters and situations bounded off the pages. Her characters are vivid and original, her magic-filled world is detailed and authentic, and she peppers every page with humour and surprises. Keep exposing your students to great writing. Keep encouraging them to play and experiment and emulate what impresses them.

How can you help your students/child?

1. Simply read excerpts like these out loud to them. Share the enjoyment with them.

2. Reflect briefly on why these short pieces are so satisfying. Why they ‘work’.

3. Observe particularly the word count. These are not massive paragraphs. In fact, being economical with words is an important part of the art.

4. Notice that word choice is the central strength of all of these. And it’s not about fancy words. It’s about bringing something to life in the imagination of the reader.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Describing a thing: rain after drought

Down it came, the blessed deluge. The music of rain splashing on tents and tin sheds drove men to an ecstasy of rejoicing. They turned out to cheer; lifted up their faces and opened their mouths to drink the bright drops; danced round, hallooing and shouting, getting drenched in the downpour.

[51 words] Katherine Prichard "The Roaring Nineties" 1946

Describing a person: Elvis Presley performing

The hair was a Vaseline cathedral, the mouth a touchingly uncertain sneer of allure. One, two-wham! Like a berserk blender the lusty young pelvis whirred and the notorious git-tar slammed forward with a jolt that symbolically deflowered a generation of teenagers and knocked chips off 90 million older shoulders. Then out of the half-melted vanilla face a wild black baritone came bawling in orgasmic lurches. Whu-huh-huh-huh f'the money! Two f'the show! Three t'git riddy naa GO CAAT GO!

[78 words] Brad Darrach, on Elvis Presley, Life, 1977

Describing an idea: what is a word?

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought, and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.

[37 words]

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1918

Describing a scene: a horse-drawn coach in rain

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 been a 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 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.

[127 words]

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Describing Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle

He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.

[54 words]

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling 1998

Describing Hagrid

A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair.

[43 words]

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling 1998

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