“Descriptive writing is an art form. It’s painting a word picture so that the reader ‘sees’ exactly what you are describing.”~Brenda Covert
What’s the big deal about writing descriptively? For one thing, it’s much more than page-filling fluff. Descriptive writing imprints images into the reader’s mind, making you feel as though you’re “right there.” It‘s all about engaging the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to transport the reader and stir emotion.
By choosing vivid details and colorful words, good writers bring objects, people, places, and events to life. Instead of merely telling you what they see, they use their words to show you.
Writers use this powerful method to make their pieces memorable—even brilliant—rather than dry and boring. In many ways, description is the most important kind of writing you can teach your children. Why? Because it supports other reasons for writing such as storytelling, informative reports, or persuasion.
Even if your child never aspires to write stories or poetry, description is a wonderful skill to develop. Without it, all other writing falls flat.
1. What It Means to Describe a Place
Vivid writing is especially important when your middle or high schooler needs to describe a place — whether describing a vista for a travel guide or fleshing out a scene in a short story.
Master storyteller Charles Dickens was gifted at using description to create a mood.
It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. ~Charles Dickens, Hard Times
But students don’t have to be a Dickens to add color, depth, and interest to their writing. Here, a 14-year-old draws on all five senses to describe a place and create a mood.
Damp and salty, a chilly breeze blows in across the swells, bringing with it the pungent smells of seaweed and fish and making me pull my jacket a little closer. Sea spray transforms into fiery prisms as the waves splash against the shore, catch the last golden rays of sun, and toss them up like liquid crystals.
With a few tips and tools, homeschool tweens and teens can effectively describe a place too.
A Desert Example
Suppose they’re planning to write about a desert. They’ll need to describe basic desert features, of course: sand, rock, hills, and dunes. But deserts aren’t all alike, so their word choices will need to reflect the kind of desert they want to write about.
For example, if they choose a desert in the southwestern United States, they’ll probably describe plants such as sagebrush, Joshua trees, yuccas, or saguaro cacti.
But if they’re writing about an oasis in the Sahara Desert, where vegetation is much different, they’d instead describe date palms, oleanders, acacia trees, succulents, and desert grasses. Their description of either desert scene will spring to life when they tell about these places using rich and appropriate details.
2. Where to Find Vocabulary to Describe a Place
How can you help your homeschoolers study a subject and choose strong words that make their writing sparkle? Whether they decide to write about a desert, city, rain forest, or pond, these ideas will help students find words that form the foundation of their descriptive piece, narrative story, or report.
Search Engine: A Homeschooler’s Best Friend
Search engines such as Google make a great resources for inspiration. In addition to collecting general terms about the location’s flora and fauna (the desert, for example), teens can find concrete, specific nouns and adjectives that add color to their writing. Suggest they begin their search by looking up terms like these:
- desert landscape
- desert features
- desert climate
- desert plants
- desert animals
- desert description
What if your teen wants to describe a city instead of a desert? City words are trickier to find, and they may have to hunt more. Try some of these search terms:
- describe city sights
- describe Chicago, describe Pittsburgh, etc.
- “describe downtown” (use quotes)
Other Sources for Descriptive Vocabulary
While search engines can lead students to a wealth of information, don’t discount the value of print media such as magazines and books. Also consider digital media such as TV documentaries or YouTube videos about the subject.
When describing a place, visit in person, if possible. But if not, can you explore a spot with similar features? Many children are visual and tactile learners. If they want to describe what a sidewalk looks like, send them outside to explore the sidewalk on your street. It will help them describe the texture, color, and appearance of a city sidewalk, even if you live in a suburb.
3. Expanding Descriptive Vocabulary
As your teens search the Internet, ask them to keep an eye out for adjectives that describe desert or city features (or whatever place they want to write about). Encourage them to come up with words on their own, but also to watch for words they meet in articles or photo captions.
When kids don’t understand some of the words, pull out the dictionary and make it a teaching moment! And show them how to use a thesaurus (we love The Synonym Finder) to find other words that say the same thing. A focused thesaurus, such as the ones below, will also help their vocabularies grow.
The Rural Setting Thesaurus gives teens the inspiration to effectively write about nature, home, and school settings.
The Urban Setting Thesaurus helps them draw on all five senses and jogs their memory to help them create believable scenes in city spaces.
4. Descriptive Examples
Some Desert Adjectives
Desert: harsh, dry, arid, sparse, severe, hot
Rock: sharp, rough, jagged, angular
Grasses: windblown, bent, dry, pale green, brown
Sand: coarse, fine, glittering, shifting, rippling, sifting, white, golden
Sky: pale, intense, cloudless, azure, purple, crimson
Cactus: tall, short, squatty, spiny, prickly, thorny, bulbous
Date palm: tall, bent, leathery (leaves), frayed (leaves)
Some City Adjectives
City: active, bustling, noisy, busy, clean, dirty, windy
Traffic: loud, congested, snarled
Buildings: old, shabby, rundown, crumbling, modern, futuristic, sleek, towering, squat
Buildings (walls): brick, stone, marble, glass, steel, graffiti-covered
Monuments, statues: stone, copper, carved, ancient, moss-covered, faded, green, bronze
Sidewalk: concrete, cement, slick, cracked, tidy, littered, swept
Paint: fresh, weathered, peeling
Signs: neon, weathered, worn, bright, welcoming, flashing
Buses, cars, taxis: belching, crawling, speeding, honking, waiting, screeching
People: hurried, bundled, smiling, frowning, eager, rushed
Use these suggestions to encourage teens to come up with ideas to describe a place of their own. You’ll both discover that hunting for words can become a favorite prewriting game! And as your kids dabble more and more in descriptive writing, I’m confident their words will soon begin to “show” more and “tell” less.
Do you struggle with teaching and grading writing in your homeschool? Does your middle- or high schooler’s writing need a boost? Consider adding WriteShop to your curriculum choices for this school year! The first seven lessons of WriteShop I specifically teach descriptive writing.
This important skill is then practiced in the remaining informative and narrative writing lessons. In addition, WriteShop teaches—and offers practice in using—a wide array of sentence variations that enhance a student’s paper with fresh style and vigor. When combined with strong, dynamic word choices, sentence variations give dull writing new life.
For younger children, WriteShop Primary introduces K-3rd graders to activities that widen their writing vocabulary. Book C contains three specific descriptive writing lessons. WriteShop Junior for grades 3-6 also provides many opportunities for students to incorporate description.