Friday, April 13, 2007

How to Direct the Floating Mind, Or: Thoughts on Organizing Descriptive Essays

Someone in The Writing Center made a good point yesterday that one of the problems with writing a descriptive essay is knowing how to organize it. When you're writing a narrative, you can always just go chronological with it, this person said. And rightly so! When telling a story, you can always just start with what happened first, then say what happened next, and so forth, until it's done.

It's not so easy to do that with an essay that's primarily descriptive, though, right? So here are a few quick thoughts on methods of organizing pieces of descriptive writing.

1. Start general, and get more specific as you go. If I'm writing about a neighborhood, for instance, I could describe the neighborhood in general, then some important streets, then some important locations among those streets, then the most important location, then the most important part of the most important location. (The tallest slide at the coolest playground?)

2. Start specific, and get more general. Like #1, but the opposite. I start on the tallest slide in the coolest playground, the describe the playground in general, then some other important places in the neighborhood, then streets, and so forth...

3. Be chronological anyway. (But don't lapse into narrative if you're trying to be descriptive.) In other words, I could describe stuff about the neighborhood the first time I was there, then some other stuff that was important later, then some other stuff in the neighborhood that I got to know even later...and so forth until I describe aspects of the neighborhood that exist right now.

4. Reverse chronological. Like 3, but opposite. This one's a bit tricky, but: You could describe the neighborhood now, then describe things about it from a little while back, then stuff from even before that, and then describe how it was when you first encountered it, on that very first day.

5. In order of growing importance or intensity. This utilizes the idea of growing suspense or intensity that is often used in narratives, but can still be applied to descriptive essays. The example I wrote above for strategy #1 moves general to specific, but also in order of growing importance.

6. Spatial. You could take the reader on a tour of the place or thing you're describing, moving through the space in words the way you would if you were walking or driving around. Travel guides are oftened organized this way, but the paragraphs of even a short essay could always be placed in a spatial order.

There are certainly other organizational strategies available to you, but the ones above are pretty common and useful. Happy writing!

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