Creating Word Pictures

by Memoir Mentor on February 26, 2008

For the last couple of weeks in my writing class, we’ve discussed ways to polish our skills in writing description. We’ve reviewed the importance of using “sense details,” describing how things smell, taste, sound, and feel, in addition to how they look. Too often we neglect senses other than sight, and our stories suffer because of it. Good detail-rich descriptions of people, places, and events will immerse your readers in your world so they can visualize what it was like to “be you.”

I gave the class an assignment to go somewhere and describe the setting, drawing on all of their sense impressions. They returned to class this week having practiced what I preached. Lillian LeJeune described her daughter’s green house. Larry Rober sat in McDonalds at his local Walmart and described all the impressions he took in. Nancy Peralta’s description took us inside Barnes and Noble. Joan Gregory made us all hungry with her rich description of a luncheon at Mimi’s Restaurant.

Several students commented that the assignment made them notice aspects of familiar surroundings they’d never really “seen” before.Fiction writers make a practice of keeping a writing notebook nearby to jot down bits of conversation they hear, impressions of what they see and hear, ideas that come to mind, You can’t get the details into your story until you see and hear them first. Jotting them down solidifies them more in your mind.One of my students, Elnor Betzold, recently wrote a poignant and humorous story about her experience in a Catholic school. The excerpt below is a memorable description of one of her teachers. This paragraph serves as the hook that opens her story.

As my seventh-grade teacher walked toward school one blustery spring afternoon, she had all she could do to stay on the ground. Sister Brigetta’s long black skirt billowed around her as gust after gust of wind struck. She walked bent over, struggling to make headway. Her veil set violent sail as her tall, painfully thin, even gaunt figure approached the playground. I laughed to my friends, “Look at Brigetta. If she only had a broom, she could fly away.” She looked the perfect witch.

Later on in the story, Elnor introduces to another teacher at the school. Here’s how she describes her: “Sister Fortunata, a tall plump nun with a beefy face whose skin drooped out of her wimple, certainly wasn’t jolly.” Elnor has captured both of these ladies with such specific detail, you can just see them in your mind’s eye. This is what good description is supposed to do.

Writer Natalie Goldberg advocates polishing your writing craft in short practice sessions. Think how much you could improve if you set aside a mere 10 minutes a day to describe a setting you’ve experienced. Buy yourself a writing notebook and try it. You’ll be glad you did.

–Memoir Mentor

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