The biggest hurdle you may face in writing a description is remembering what the
term means as it is used in this context. We all use the word description loosely to
refer to practically any discussion or explanation. But in this context, it means the
detailed discussion of the physical aspects of a thing. That means discussing things
like color, shape, size, weight, height, width, thickness, texture, density, contents,
materials of construction, and so on. It also means discussing any quantifiable details
such as numbers.
For example, the sentence "A computer diskette is a device used for storing electronic
data" is not really description in our sense of the word. It explains the function or
purpose but provides little or no physical detail. However, the sentence "The common
computer diskette is 3.5 inches by 3.5 inches and approximately 1/8 inch thick" is
very definitely description.
Be sure to check out the example descriptions available with this chapter:
Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight
Interplak Home Plaque Removal Instrument
Primitive Stone Scraper
Standard Automobile Alternator
Contexts for Description
As mentioned earlier, descriptions are common element in technical writing--just not
quite in the same way that instructions are. Descriptions appear more often as a
sentence or two here, a paragraph there, or a whole section there. There are certain
kinds of technical writing that feature description. You can imagine accident reports
requiring plenty of description. Product specifications--documents that describe
design and feature of a new or changed product--have plenty of description. Also
instructions typically require description as an important supplement: readers need to
be able to visualize what they are doing and what they are working with.
Contents and Organization of Descriptions
The following is a review of the sections you'll commonly find in descriptions. Don't
assume that each one of them has to be in the actual description you write, nor that
they have to be in the order they are presented here.
As you read the following on common sections in descriptions, check out the example
descriptions. Not all of the following sections typically found in descriptions will
show up in the examples, but most will.
Introduction. Plan the introduction to your description carefully. Make sure it does
all of the following things (but not necessarily in this order) that apply to your
Indicate the specific object about to be described.
Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and
background to understand the description.
Give a general description of the object and its function, cause, or
Give an overview of the contents of the description.
Now remember: you may not need all of the elements, and some of them can combine
neatly into single sentences. The introduction ought to be brisk and to the point and
not feel as though it is trudging laboriously through each of these elements.
Background. If the thing you are describing is not likely to be familiar to most of
your readers, consider adding some background before you plunge into the actual
description. If you are about to describe an SGO/3 density gauge to nonspecialists,
you'd better first discuss what in the world the thing is, what it does, and on what part
of the planet it is used.
Discussion of the parts or characteristics. The main part of your description is
the discussion of each part or characteristic. You must divide the thing you are
describing into parts, or characteristics, or both. Parts are easy: for example, a
wooden pencil has lead, a wooden barrel, an eraser, and a metal
clip. Characteristics are describable aspects of a thing but are not parts: for example,
the pencil has a certain weight, lenngth, width, and so on. If you were a budding realestate tycoon and had to describe a vacant lot for company files, you'd probably
describe it by its characteristics: its location, square footage, terrain, vegetation,
access to utilities, and so on. (Check out the description of the primitive stone scraper
in the examples of description at the end of this appendix; part of it is arranged by
characteristics, and part by parts!)
Once you've divided the thing you are describing into parts, characteristics, or both,
your next job is to describe each one. For mechanical things, it works well to start by
defining the part, by explaining its function. After that, you describe the part from
general to specific, using any of the sources of description that are appropriate.
Notice that in description, you can mix other kinds of writing. You'll find yourself
explaining functions, defining terms, discussing a bit of process as you describe.
That's not a problem as long as the primary focus and the majority of the content is
Discussion of the related operation or process. At some point in a
description, often at the end, it is useful to summarize the operation or process
associated with the object you're describing. For example, if you've just described a
mechanical pencil, you could briefly explain how it is used. If you've just described a
snowflake, you could discuss the process by which it formed.
Sources of Description
When you write a description, you need to think about the kinds of descriptive detail
you can provide. Sometimes, descriptions are rather weak in this area. Use the
following list to plan your description or to review a description you have written.
Think of the categories of descriptive detail you could provide, or use the following
list to identify categories you have not used:
methods of attachment
Figure 10. Schematic view of descriptions. Remember that this is just a typical or
common model for the contents and organization--many others are possible.
In descriptions, you'll probably find yourself puzzling over how to handle numbers,
abbreviations, and symbols:
Numbers. Remember that technical writing breaks some of those rules you worked
so hard to learn in past writing classes. In the technical writing context, we are often
vitally concerned about numbers and want them to stand out. This means that you
should use numerals in running text when the number indicates an exact, measured, or
measurable amount or when it represents a critical value. For example, in the sentence
"The cup is 3 inches in diameter" or in the sentence "Use 4 tacks to fasten the poster
to the wall," it seems to matter that the numbers are exact. However, this does not
mean using numerals for indifferent values: for example, in the sentence "The report
contains four major sections," there is nothing heart-stopping about how many
sections the report has. See the section on numbers vs. words for further details.
Figure 11. Anatomy of a descriptive paragraph. Typically, it starts with some
statement about the purpose or function of the part, with the descriptive detail
following. Descriptive detail draws upon the "sources" of description--such things as
color, shape, width, and height.
Abbreviations. In technical writing, we expect to see abbreviations. Use them in
your description freely. Remember the rule on punctuating abbreviations--punctuate
them only if they spell a word (for example, "in."). Remember too that abbreviations
do not go up against the number they are used with (for example, make that "8 mm
tape" or "8-mm tape" butnot "8mm tape").
Symbols. The most common problem with symbols in the instructions and
descriptions assignment has to do with inches and feet. If you're writing instructions
for a carpenter's dream project where there are feet and inches all over the place, use
the symbols " (inches) and ' (feet). However, if you cite inch and foot measurements
only a few times, use the word or abbreviation instead.
Graphics and Format in Descriptions
In most descriptions, you'll need at least one illustration of the thing you are
describing, with labels pointing to the parts. See the section on graphics for more on
creating graphics, formatting them according to our class requirements, and
incorporating them into your descriptions.
Headings. In descriptions, you'll want to use headings and subheadings to mark off
the discussion of the individual parts or characteristics. Remember that, ideally, you
want to describe each part in a separate paragraph or section--and flag that discussion
with a heading. If you have a background section, use a heading for it too. See the
section on headingsfor the specific requirements (remember that this course asks you
to use a certain style and format for headings).
Lists. Lists are not nearly so important in descriptions as they are in instructions.
However, if you itemize parts or subparts or list specifications, these are good
situations for lists. See the section on lists for the specific requirements (remember
that this course asks you to use a certain style and format for lists).
Special notices. In descriptions, there is nothing like the important role for special
notices as there is in instructions. After all, if it really is a description, readers should
not be trying to follow any procedure, and therefore should not be running any risks of
damaging equipment, wasting supplies, screwing up the procedure, or injuring
themselves or others. However, you may find the note special notice to be useful to
emphasize important points or exceptions. See the section on special notices for
complete discussion of the proper use of these special notices as well as their format
and placement within instructions. (And remember that in our course we have a
specific style and format for these notices.)
Our next assignment asks you to explain to both a non-technical or novice audience
and a specialized audience “how something works.” The purpose of description is not
simply to help your audiences understand what something is or does (which is the
province of definition), but to help them see--literally-- how something functions. To
this end, descriptions use visual detail, both in pictures and in words, to describe both
the physical object or process and how it works.
For this assignment, you will choose an object or a process with which you are
reasonably familiar and describe it to the audiences. If you are choosing a process, the
process must be one that is not accomplished through direct human action (that would
be instructions). In other words, you can describe how blood circulates; you cannot
describe how to make a free throw. You may choose something from your chosen
major/profession, or you may choose something from a hobby or interest. Examples
might be a camera, a hard drive, the human heart, the metabolic process, or a
The approximate total length for this assignment is 1000 – 1600 words. As always,
please cite your sources. Since there are two descriptions of the same process it will
be up to you to decide which audience to write for first. However, please do indicate
at the top of each paper which audience is which. The specialized audience could be
people who share with you a very specific area of specialization within a field, or it
could be a broader audience within that field. The non-technical audience has little to
no background knowledge of your subject
Your descriptions should answer the following questions:
1. What is it?
2. What does it do?
3. What does it look like?
4. What is it made of (physical objects only)?
5. How does it work?
6. How has it been put together?
7. Why should your reader use it?
You will not necessarily answer these questions in an orderly manner, but each of
them should be addressed if they are relevant to your description.
Your descriptions should have the following elements:
• Sense of the overall object or process, including why it is significant for the
• Clear explanation of each part's function
• Details appropriate to the audience's interest and level of knowledge
• Clear and appropriate organization, which will likely be one of the following types:
o Spatial organization, when you want readers to visualize the mechanism or
process as a static object (e.g., house interior, document, disk box)
o Functional organization, when you want the reader to see a mechanism or a
process in action (e.g., camera, smoke detector)
o Chronological organization, when you want the reader to see a mechanism or
a process according to how it was put together (e.g., tent, piece of furniture)
Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight
The Rayovac Workhorse is a hand-sized plastic flashlight, easily portable, which will fit into most
automobile glove compartments. (See Figure 1.) The Workhorse's overall length is 6 inches, with a
diameter of 2 inches at the head of the flashlight, tapering to 1-1/4 inches in diameter at the battery
compartment. The body of the Workhorse, basically cylindrical in shape, is of matte black, high-impact
plastic, ribbed for a secure handgrip. The Workhorse flashlight consists of two major parts: (a) the body,
containing the battery compartment and the switch, and (b) the bulb assembly, containing the reflector,
the bulb, and the connector. The flashlight is powered by two 1.5 volt size C batteries.
Figure 1. Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight
The body of the Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight is 5-5/8 inches, with a diameter of 2 inches at the screw,
or head end, tapering to 1-1/4 inches at the battery compartment. The interior of the screw end is
threaded, allowing for connection with the bulb assembly. (See Figure 2 for an illustration of the
complete flashlight assembly.)
Battery compartment. The battery compartment holds the batteries, the power source for the
flashlight. The compartment is cylindrical, 3-1/2 inches long and 1-1/4 inches in diameter, with a coiled
metal spring on the interior of the closed end, and a 1/4-inch wide strip of gold-colored metal running
along one interior side of the compartment. Tne compartment holds two 1.5-volt C batteries, in a
stacked position, with the negative end of the lowermost battery in contact with the spring, and the
positive end of the lowermost battery supporting the negative end of the uppermost battery. The open
end of the battery compartment closes with the insertion of the bulb assembly.
Switch. The switch turns the flashlight on and off. the flashlight switch is located on the body of the
Workhorse 1-1/2 inches from the screw end. The switch is of round white plastic, designed to be
activated with the thumb of the hand holding the flashlight. When the switch is pushed forward,
towards the larger end of the flashlight, the light turns on. When the switch is returned to the original
position, the light turns off.
Figure 2. Components of the Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight
The bulb assembly of the flashlight consists of the reflector, the bulb, and the connector. When fully
assembled, the bulb assembly is 2 inches long, with a diameter of 2 inches at the reflector end reducing
to 3/4 inch at the contact end of the connector. The bulb assembly completes the flashlight by screwing
into the end, or head end of the body of the flashlight.
Reflector. The reflector magnifies and projects the light generated by the battery-powered bulb. When
viewed from the larger end, the reflector consists of a transparent flat plastic cover over a chromecolored reflective plastic concavity with a central hole. The elements are permanently attached together
and housed in a matte black plastic. The reflector screws into the connector on one end, and the
midsection of the reflector provides the main screw for attachment to the flashlight body.
Bulb. The light source for the Workhorse is a glass bulb, 1/2 inch long, permanently fused onto a
cylindrical metal base 1/2 inch long and 3/8 inch in diameter. The bottom of the metal base has a
protrusion, providing the electrical connection between the bulb and connector. The bulb itself contains
a metallic filament, one-half the length of the glass portion of the bulb, surrounded, at a point halfway
up the length, by a clouded white plastic-like material.
Connector. The connector connects the reflector and bulb to the battery power source. The connector is
of black plastic, ringed with a metallic collar 3/8 inch wide. The closed end of the connector is mounted
with a 5/6 inch-square gold-colored metal strip. The metal strip facilitates the connection between the
bulb and the batteries. The open end of the connector is threaded to allow joining with the bulb and
When fully assembled, the Rayovac Workhorse Flashlight is a sturdy easily held tool providing light
sufficient for regular outdoor and emergency use. The compact size makes the flashlight easily portable,
and batteries and bulb are readily accessible for replacement.
Purchase answer to see full