Tag Archives: description

Descriptive writing

Grand Central

Exams at 11+ and 13+ level always let you tell a story in the writing section, but they sometimes provide a picture and simply ask you to describe it or to ‘write about it in any way you like’. Writing a description is obviously different from writing a story, so it’s worthwhile pointing out the differences and the similarities.

When you write a story, the best way of doing it is probably to follow the five-step process that I outline in Story Mountains:

  1. Choose the title
  2. Brainstorm for ideas
  3. Plan your work
  4. Write it
  5. Check it

You can use a similar basic method for doing a description – except the planning stage obviously doesn’t involve creating a story mountain! – but what are the differences? Steps 1, 4 and 5 are pretty much the same, but you might want to have a look at these tips for the brainstorm and planning.


When you’re brainstorming for a story, you have to think about characters, genre, period, setting and plot, and you also have to make sure there’s a ‘problem’ to solve so that your idea fits into a story mountain. However, descriptions don’t necessarily have all of those things in them, so you have to think about it in a different way.

The simplest form of description would simply involve describing what’s in a picture (or imagining what’s there if you’re just given the title). That might result in some very imaginative creative writing and open up the possibility of using some great vocabulary and all the poetic devices you can think of, including similes and metaphors. However, the very best descriptions have to have some kind of ‘hook’ to grab the reader’s attention, and that usually means a central character, situation or even a mini ‘plot’. You obviously need to describe exactly what’s in the picture, but what if you want to say more? What if the picture doesn’t have the things in it that you want. That’s a bit tricky, but you can always ask questions or just ask the narrator to imagine things.

Hal Morey’s picture of New York’s Grand Central Station is a good example. The shot has lots of elements to it, including the architecture, the people and the beams of light from the windows, so you could easily spend your whole time going over the picture in great depth, picking out each detail and thinking up the best words and metaphors to describe it. Vocabulary is important here, so you might make a list of the words that you planned to use. One good way of organising this is to think about the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It’s sometimes difficult to get beyond the visual when you’re analysing a picture, so this method just forces you to think of the other aspects of a scene. Try to make separate lists for each of the senses. The visual vocabulary might include the following:

  • columns (not just walls)
  • vaulting (not just roof)
  • passengers (not just people)
  • spotlights (not just light)
  • cathedral (not just station)
  • nave (not just hall)
  • balustrade (not just railing)

It’s not enough to use words like ‘roof’ when more imaginative synonyms exist such as ‘vaulting’, so try to think of the very best words to use. After all, the examiner can’t tell that you know a word unless you use it! And the same goes for metaphors. Where did the word ‘cathedral’ come from? Well, the shape of the hall and all the windows are similar to what you’d find in a cathedral or a large church, so why not use that in a kind of ‘extended metaphor’? An extended metaphor takes a comparison and uses it more than once, so the main part of the hall might be the ‘nave’, the two large arched windows might be the ‘west windows’ and the people might be the ‘congregation’. Even better would be to link the metaphor to the purpose of the other building by saying something like this: “The congregation bustled to find their seats in the pews as they made their daily act of worship to the god of commerce.” Suddenly, you’ve gone from a bland description of what you can see for yourself to a new and imaginative way of looking at the world.

The other category of words on your checklist should be feelings. Why simply describe what people look like and not examine how they feel? As an example, use the context of Grand Central Station to imagine what’s going through the passengers’ minds? Are they bored, are they reluctant to go to work, or are they happy to be bunking off for a day at the beach?!

So what else can you do to take your writing to the next level? The answer is to introduce a main character or some kind of situation or miniature plot. You’re hardly ever ‘banned’ from using a plot in this kind of question, so there’s no problem with introducing one, but let’s stick with the idea of doing a description rather than a story. The Grand Central picture is again a good example. What would be the character or the situation or the plot here? Well, the obvious idea is to pick is a commuter who’s late for his train. You could introduce the description by focusing on one individual in the picture and explaining why he’s in a hurry. You could then have a kind of countdown clock as you described all the people and objects he sees as he rushes to make his train:

     Lionel Carey was in a hurry. He only had five minutes to make his train to get to the most important meeting of his life! He struggled along with his precious, old, leather briefcase, catching his fedora as it was blown off his head and cursing the long overcoat he had chosen to wear as it made him sweat uncomfortably and almost tripped him over. Now, what platform did he need?
     Four minutes to go…

And so on. This gives the passage a clearer focus and a sense of tension, excitement and mystery. Will Lionel catch his train? Where is he going? What is the meeting about? It just adds another layer to the description – and ideally leads to higher marks!

Alternatively, you can talk about things that are not in the picture by doing one of the following:

  • ask questions, eg if the picture was of the Colosseum in Rome, you could ask questions like Was this where the Roman gladiators stood before they made their way to their deaths in the arena?
  • create a section in which the narrator imagines objects or events, eg It was here that the emperor would stand before giving the thumbs-up or thumbs-down sign that would signal the fate of the gladiators.


It’s fairly obvious how to plan for a story because it has to have a plot, but how do you plan for a description? Do you just describe what’s in the picture, starting perhaps on the left and working  your way across? Or do you separate your work into five different paragraphs on each of the senses, with perhaps an extra one for the feelings of the travellers? Or can you introduce a timeline, charting the progress of an imaginary character – such as Lionel Carey, hurrying to catch his train? Each one might work, but you’ll probably get the best marks for something that engages the reader, and the best way of doing that is to have a central character and a carefully selected situation to place him in:

Lionel Carey in a hurry – needs to catch train for meeting, looks for platform

4 mins

Describe Lionel – importance of what’s in briefcase, mysterious ‘she’ he’s meeting
Describe station – architecture, light, people

3 mins

Describe people he sees
Bumps into coffee cart
Argues with staff
Will he ever see ‘her’?

2 mins

Describe trains – steam, smoke, whistle
Wrong platform – needs to run to Platform 16

1 min

Describe running, bumping into people, curses

Time’s up!
Too late – but wait! Train is delayed. He can give daughter Xmas present after all!

Whatever the picture or title, try giving this method a try. If you brainstorm and plan correctly, focusing on all five senses and people’s feelings and using a central character to add excitement and mystery, I’m sure you’ll do a good job.


A picture is worth a thousand words

"Where does this grey piece go...?"

“Where does this grey piece go…?”

Have you ever tried to do a 10,000-piece jigsaw of grey seals on a grey rock in a grey sea under a grey sky? Tricky, isn’t it? The key to doing a jigsaw puzzle or writing a description is attention to detail. Everything matters: the mood, the setting, the period, the action, the characters – everything that our five senses can tell us and more. To try and produce the very best description you can when faced with any English exam that includes a composition question, it’s important to approach it in the right way.

Choose the right question (1 minute, assuming you have 30 minutes for the whole question)

  • Common Entrance exams at either 11+ or 13+ usually offer a choice between a story, an essay or a description, perhaps of a photograph or illustration. If you choose the description, make sure you know something about the subject or at least have a good enough stock of synonyms or specialist vocabulary to describe it properly. If the picture is of a horse in a tack room bit you don’t know anything about horse riding, leave well alone!
  • We always write more imaginatively and at greater length if we’re writing about something we like or enjoy, so try to find a question that gets an emotional reaction out of you. If you like beautiful things, then you might respond better to a photograph of a sunset in the Maldives than a montage of burnt-out cars in Beirut!

Brainstorm ideas (5 minutes)

  • This is where attention to detail is most important. Before you take the exam, make sure you have a mental checklist of all the aspects of a scene that you might need to describe. Once you start planning your description, take a sheet of paper and divide it up into sections (or use a mind map with different bubbles for sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). Make notes based on all five senses. Even if you can’t think of anything to write about one of them, such as ‘taste’, use your imagination. If it’s a seascape, is there the tang of salt on the air? Can the sailors smell land?
  • Think creatively about how to approach the description. A little bit of plot or context goes a long way to creating an appropriate mood, so think about topping and tailing the piece with one or two sentences about the observer. What’s the point of view of the narrator? Is he or she a spy, a pilot, a soldier or a scientist? Is he or she deaf or blind? Would it be better to write in the first or third person?
  • Even if you don’t decide to tell part of a story, think carefully about what the atmosphere of the scene should be. Every situation will demand a different mood or tone. Do you want it to be peaceful, suspenseful or frantic? What’s about to happen? Is it an ambush, an escape plan or a drug deal?
  • The atmosphere should be reflected in the vocabulary you choose to describe the scene. Make a list of the words that have the right associations or connotations, including ‘wow words’ or ‘golden words’ that you think might impress the examiner. Think of as many synonyms as you can. Why ‘destroy’ when you can ‘annihilate’? Why should a tree be plain old ‘green’ when it could be ‘verdant’?
  • Writing descriptively is not the same as writing an essay or doing a comprehension. You don’t need to be brief and matter-of-fact all the time. Think of different poetic devices you can use to make the characters or objects jump off the page. Can you get over the atmosphere or the emotion better with a simile, a metaphor or onomatopoeia? Is the sun in the Sahara desert ‘rather warm’ or ‘as hot as the furnace in the forge of Hell’?

Write a plan (5 minutes)

  • Failing to plan means planning to fail. I’ve read hundreds of compositions written by pupils of all ages, and it doesn’t take long to realise when something hasn’t been planned. You don’t need a plot here necessarily, but you do need some sort of structure. Look at the ideas that you came up with during your brainstorm and decide how to group them together. Draw up a brief outline on a clean sheet of paper, listing the different paragraphs and including bullet points for each with the subject matter, key concepts or particular words that you want to use. What needs to go first? How are you going to finish? Are you going to take each sense in turn? Should you describe the different parts of the scene one by one, the lake followed by the mountains and then the village?

Write the description (whatever time you have left, less 5 minutes to check at the end)

  • Stick to the plan. It’s all very well having a plan, but getting your head down and writing the whole answer without looking at it is no better than not having one in the first place! If you do have a good idea that you want to include, by all means add it to the plan, but make sure you don’t get carried away and write too much about one topic, leaving too little time for all the others.
  • You don’t get any marks for answering a question that’s not even on the exam paper, so make sure you don’t get tempted to wander off the beaten path. Re-read the question now and again. Are there any special instructions? Are you doing exactly what you’ve been asked to do? Are you covering every part of the question?
  • Write as quickly as you can. I could never write as much as I wanted to, and one of the professors at my Oxford interview actually complained about it! I had to tell him I hoped that I was giving him ‘quality rather than quantity’, but I wish I’d been able to hand in six sides rather than four! You don’t have much time, so don’t spend a whole minute searching for the perfect word when another will do. You can always come back to it later when you check your answer.

Check your work (5 minutes)

  • Check for spelling, punctuation and capital letters (as you should for any piece of writing in English).
  • Check you haven’t made any other silly mistakes, either grammatical or stylistic. Make sure you’ve said what you want to say, and feel free to cross out the odd word and replace it with a better one if you can. Just make sure your handwriting is legible!

If you follow all these steps, you may not have the greatest ever description in the history of English literature, but you’ll have given it your best shot! If it helps, challenges or inspires you, here’s one of my favourites. It was written by James Joyce and comes in the final paragraph of his short story The Dead:

“Yes, the news­pa­pers were right: snow was gen­eral all over Ire­land. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, fur­ther west­wards, softly falling into the dark muti­nous Shan­non waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely church­yard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and head­stones, on the spears of the lit­tle gate, on the bar­ren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the liv­ing and the dead.”