Writing Great Visual Description

Rusted Tractor

Rusted Tractor

Artful Photograph: Writing great visual description is similar to taking an artful photograph. The focus of the description must be clear and present to the eye. In a photograph, we perceive the relationship between foreground and background. Our eye is guided by the structure of the image. Our senses respond to the rich, vivid, colorful details. When we write, we pay attention to these same elements and fabricate them in our descriptions with carefully chosen language, preferably figurative language rather than a flat string of adjectives.

Structure and Details: A tractor may be old and rusted, but the palette of reds and blues and golds against a white farm building create a harmony of shade that entices us even as the structure of the tractor draws the eye forward to the grill in front. The white farm building is a simple, eloquent contrast that at once compares old and new as well as vibrant hues and simple white.

Relationship Among Elements: The relationship between the tractor and the farm building calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which begin “So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow . . . ” speaking to that interdependence between man and machine on a farm, a sight everywhere visible in Iowa. The relationship is a stark reality, but how we perceive it is shaped by a myriad of distinct details. The wheelbarrow is “sparkling with rain water”; even the rusted tractor glimmers its muted rich hues in the sun.

Mental Picture: Compelling description is in the details, whether they be drops of water or flakes of colorful rust. Let your eyes choose your words and bring that mental picture to life for your reader. An entire world can unfold from a single image.


Tractor image courtesy of Bill Graeser.