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Notes on Description

by The Editor Company   


There is always a demand in the literary market for descriptive articles which really describe. A writer's success in any line of literary work depends largely upon his power of description. It pays to be able to describe well, to paint vividly and accurately in words any scene which memory or imagination brings forth. This power is most difficult to acquire, and demands months and years of toilsome practice. But the end is well worthy of the means.

The two elements to be studied in every description are:

1.  The mental picture we have of the scene, event or person.

2.  The language with which it is to be conveyed to the reader. The mental picture must be clear, accurate, and complete. The language should be simple, yet adequate to express all the finer shades. The writer must know the thing he is to describe; seeing is not sufficient. Pictures drawn from the image on the retina of the eye are superficial. It is not what a writer has seen that really interests us. It is how he saw it.

One's soul must be saturated with the color before he can paint a living picture. A writer may draw a fair picture of a city or landscape by viewing it from a car window. But the description which lives in the mind of the reader is not drawn so. It is taken from scenes that have become a part of us, by our living with them; the green, and yellow, and red, of field and forest. The man with the antique hat and Prince Albert coat, the woman with a sad face, are not worth writing about. Any one can see the same color, and the similar types of people. What the reader wants is to see something in them. To know what they are for, to feel a spirit in the arrangement. These the writer can not give unless they have become a part of himself.

Observing people is a good exercise, but I fancy no living character has ever been created by a mere spectator. If a writer ever produces a character that will live tomorrow, it must be drawn from a knowledge gained by living with such character until his being becomes a part of the writer's own consciousness. Pretty pictures may be made from holiday colors, but it isn't safe to put them in expensive frames. They can not bear the critic's test. All the excellent work we do, must be with material we have learned to know—not that we have merely seen.

When you describe, choose something distinctively your own. Get the inner meaning of it, its spirit in your spirit, then look well to your language. One must be a master of words to draw good pictures. It will be found an excellent practice to compel oneself to describe something every day. The ice that glistened in the morning sun, the sunset, a building you have passed, a character you have met, or anything on which your fancy takes hold. Carefully revise these sketches. When you have done something well, lay it aside for future use.

Great care should be taken to have the style conform to the scene. A little study usually will enable one to determine the style best suited to the picture. Scenes which are intended to produce vivid impressions are best described by short, concise sentences. Gorgeous ones require more elaborate phrasing. Practice in this will not make perfect. Perfection in language is never reached. But patient exercise always brings good results.