Monday, April 9, 2007

How Not to Just Write About What Your Dog Did

A lot of instructors like to start a writing course with some descriptive writing. It gives students a chance to work on some writing skills that they often don't pay much attention to when they're super concerned about proving a thesis, and the ability to describe something well is often the first step in analyzing or discussing something. We've already begun to see students coming into the Writing Center this term with descriptive writing assignments.

Here's a common problem we see students encounter in writing descriptively. This Writing Center Blogger teaches writing courses, and often asks students to write a descriptive essay about a neighborhood they lived in. Here, in a condensed and a little bit silly form, is how that essay sometimes goes a bit wrong:

The best neighborhood I ever lived in was in southeast Portland. I lived there with my mom, my brother, and my dog Rusty, which is the dog I had when I was seven, which is when I lived in this neighborhood--did I mention that? Rusty was the greatest dog in the world. I used to walk him in that neighborhood all the time, and a lot of the time I would let him off his leash, because there was a lot of room in that neighborhood. Man, Rusty could run fast! And he was so beautiful when he was running so fast! Those were some of my favorite times, when I let Rusty loose in that neighborhood.

You know what else Rusty could do? He could jump super high. He used to jump all over that neighborhood. I remember a time that we had him in our backyard, and then some time during the afternoon I looked out the window and I was like, Uh...where's Rusty? He had jumped over the backyard fence. Then he had jumped over the fence of the people whose yard was next to ours, and then he had jumped over some more fences. I found him two hours later, jumping up and dunking basketballs at the park. Man, Rusty was beautiful when he dunked. He would storm right into the lane and just, BAM! Dipsy doo dunkeroo! He wasn't afraid. Rusty was awesome. And I haven't even started to talk about what he could do on defense.

The essay goes on this way. When you're writing naturally and with enthusiasm, it can often feel great, and before you know it you've filled up the required number of pages. But here's the thing: This essay has described almost nothing about that neighborhood. It might seem, while writing it, that it's about the neighborhood. After all, all of these Rusty stories take place in the neighborhood. But that's also kind of the problem: the essay features a lot of stories, but not a lot of description.

Description and narrative are different things. Narratives can include descriptions, and descriptions can include narratives. But there are times when a writer can easily let the narrative kind of swamp the description. If you're being asked to write something descriptive, make sure it's primarily descriptive, and not, secretly, pretty much just narrative.

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