Style: Using Description in your Writing

Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in the 1932 A Farewell to Arms movie.

Tips for creative and other descriptive writing. Whether you’re writing a novel or ethnography, description places the reader in the scene.

That night at the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

  • Good writing is good writing, whether it’s literature or a scholarly journal article.
  • Provide enough evidence so that the reader agrees with you. In the quote above, everything that precedes the last line is evidence for the private world of Hemingway’s characters, Henry and Catherine. We accept Hemingway’s assertion because we have experienced it for ourselves.
  • If you’re doing an ethnography or other academic writing, there is a paradox. Part of providing evidence is acknowledging alternative views. You want the reader to understand why you came to the conclusion you did.
  • In fiction writing, alternative perspectives are less important, since you don’t have to justify the existence of the world you are creating.
  • The point of this excerpt is that Henry and Catherine were living in their private world. The last words, “all other things were unreal,” says this explicitly. Don’t be afraid to be explicit.
  • Try to use all 5 senses, although not all at once, which would be overkill. The new writer’s tendency is to say what things look like, but if you place yourself in any situation, there is a lot more going on. The Hemingway passage is very tactile, even though it appears at first read to be visual. Smooth sheets, thick carpet, comfortable bed. Long empty halls come with a feeling, and subconsciously evoke smells, and even sounds or absence of sounds.
  • Focus on describing rather than telling. In this passage, Hemingway does not tell us the main characters Henry and Catherine are blissfully happy with each other, he uses words so we feel it.
  • Describing is NOT emotionally neutral. Hemingway’s images are deliberately chosen to evoke feelings. Good writing, especially good academic writing, has a definite perspective. Make your point without apology.
  • Economy of words. Eliminate words which don’t create images relevant to your point. Hemingway is famous for being lean and economical with his words. However, you can see that the carefully chosen images in the quote provide a rich sensual experience for the reader.

Recommended reading: H.L. Goodall’s book, Writing the New Ethnography.

— Vickie Deneroff

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