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Lesson 3.  How to write a Description.

When we are describing something - a person, a place, an object, an impression - it is important to remember that we are not describing it to ourselves but to someone else. We therefore have to be clear in our own minds as to what is Fact, i.e. the colour of hair or eyes, the size of a room, a variety of flower or tree, etc., and what is Personal Impression, i.e. our own feelings or reactions to something, or somebody, or some experience. We all know how often, when someone is described to us, we say after we have met this person, 'but he wasn't a bit like you said!' Or when we have been to a place we have read about in a book, we say, 'It wasn't a bit like I expected.' This is because, apart from simple Fact, very few people see things in the same way. Sometimes, of course, Fact and Personal Impression form part of one description. We cannot, for instance, dispute the fact of a person's height, or the shape of his nose, but our impression of his character is purely personal.
Description, if it is not to be misleading, requires a careful choice of words. Too many adjectives and comparisons confuse the reader.

 
A. Description of a person. Height - fat/thin - colour of hair/eyes - unusual features - mannerisms - expression - character
My new boss was short and exceedingly fat. He had sharp black eyes and was completely bald. There was a small red scar above his left eyebrow which he had the habit of scratching when he was dictating letters. He smiled a great deal, like a cheerful and intelligent baby, but I soon discovered that he was selfish and ruthless in all his business dealings.

B. Description of a place. Country - district - size - scenery - population - industry - amenities - atmosphere
Foxbury is a small village in Sussex on the south coast of England. It has less than a thousand inhabitants whose main occupation is fishing and market gardening. It lies in a fold of the downs in a thickly wooded area. There is shooting here in the season and, for those who like it, some gentle hill-climbing. It attracts few visitors in the summer for its beach is stony and slippery with seaweed. I know no pleasanter place to get away from the world.

C. Personal Impression. A Visit to the Zoo.
Animals in cages - sad - frustrated - trapped - humiliated - comparison with life - aggression - escape despair
The sight of so many beautiful animals in cages filled me with sadness. Frustrated and trapped by their captors, what chance had they of enjoying their short lives? They were humiliated as I was humiliated in my petty job, caged in my stuffy office with as little freedom as the lion I now stared at. Feelings of violence rose up in me. I beat my fists against the iron bars of the cage, frantic to free not the lion, but myself from indignity. The lion stared back at me. Perhaps it did not want to escape. I turned away in despair.

 

Exercise 1.
Write a short paragraph describing each of the following subjects. Be careful to make a brief outline of the way in which you want to treat the description, before you write your paragraph.

1. A visit to a museum. 2. A close friend. 3. The sea in winter. 4. A storm at night. 5. Your home. 6. A railway station.

 

Exercise 2.
Read the following description of Lawrence Curry, a famous writer, and then answer the questions that follow it. You need only choose the letter A, B, C, or D for your answer in each case.

When I tell people my name, they always ask me if I'm related to Lawrence Curry, the novelist, and when I say, yes, he was my great-uncle, they always want to know what he was like. 'We've seen photographs of him, we've read all his books,' they say, 'but please tell us what he was really like.' When I describe him, as I knew him, they go away disappointed. It seems they find it difficult to accept that such a great literary figure could have had such an ordinary character.
My great-uncle was tall, with a long thin body and stick-like arms that protruded awkwardly from his jacket sleeves. When he walked, he moved stiffly, with his arms clamped against his sides, looking like nothing so much as an animated pair of scissors. When I knew Slim, his hair was quite white, though it was supposed to have been straw-coloured when he was young. His eyes were blue and deep set and had an anxious look about them as if he found the world a bewildering place. This expression of anxiety, which arose from nothing more than short sight - he despised classes and refused to wear them - inspired, so I understand, the protective instincts of many of his lady admirers, much to the irritation of my great-aunt who thought all women were fools, except herself.
Great-Uncle Curry was naturally lazy. He spent a great deal of his time in the village pub playing darts. He was also a compulsive reader of anything from the local telephone directory to great-aunt's shopping lists. For a man whose books - when he had been bullied into completing them - showed such a deep perception of the complexities of human behaviour, his conversation was surprisingly trivial. He delighted in discussing the English weather, the price of beer, his grandchildren's most amusing remarks, and the number of miles his old car could do to the gallon. He loved to gossip, but he was kind. I never heard him make a malicious remark, but the wit and sparkle of his writing never appeared in his conversation. As children, we much preferred the company of his cousin, Stanley, a successful grocer who brought us bags of broken biscuits and sticks of barley sugar, and let us ride in his van. Taking it all in all, I have to admit that my famous great-uncle was rather a bore.


1. When people learnt that the writer was Lawrence Curry's great-nephew, they wanted him to tell
A. them about the great man's character
B. appearance
C. work
D. home life

2. Why were people usually disappointed by what the writer told them about Lawrence Curry?
They
A. didn't believe what they were told
B. didn't understand what they were told
C. expected to hear something different
D. expected to hear what they'd read

3. '... looking like nothing so much as an animated pair of scissors'. Why does the writer use this phrase to describe his great-uncle?
A. He held himself very upright
B. His legs were very long and thin
C. His coat sleeves were too short for him
D. He walked with a pair of sticks

4. Why did Lawrence Curry have a perpetually anxious expression?
A. He found the world a very worrying place
B. felt he needed looking after
C. suffered from a slight disability
D. was a little afraid of his wife

5. From the kind of things that Lawrence Curry read, we understand that he
A. was a discriminating reader
B. wasn't interested in what he read
C. didn't bother to read anything interesting
D. was interested in reading anything

6. From what the writer tells us, we learn that Lawrence Curry
A. had to be made to work
B. only worked when he wanted to
C. was too lazy to do any work
D. didn't believe in working hard

7. What was one of the outstanding qualities of Lawrence Curry's writing?
A. His unusual philosophy of life
B. His understanding of his own problems
C. His understanding of people
D. His interest in commonplace subjects

8. Lawrence Curry's conversation mostly concerned
A. things of little importance
B. the unimportance of little things
C. everyday things that surprised him
D. anything surprising that happened to him

9. From the information given in the text, it seems that Lawrence Curry
A. wrote better than he talked
B. talked better than he wrote
C. refused to listen to unkind gossip
D. liked to listen to malicious gossip

10. Cousin Stanley was more popular with the children because he
A. let them drive his van
B. gave them expensive presents
C. was inclined to spoil them
D. was successful

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