Teacher Notes on Description Writing

Guidelines for Writing Good Descriptions

Context for this case:

Other versions:

Introduce these guidelines by “touring” them with CDC’s Sudden Unexplained Infant Death reporting form.
Cognitive Apprenticeship

  • “Reveals the magic” behind effective technical descriptions.
  • Connects writing to authentic, nonschool reader needs.


for Writing Good Descriptions


  • OVERVIEW. Begin with a brief overview that reveals the object’s
    (a) overall framework, arrangement, or shape, and
    (b) purpose or function.
  • PARTS. Divide the object into parts and describe each part
    (a) in enough detail to use, make, or draw it, and
    (b) in a way that reveals its role, its relation to other parts.
  • ORDER. Organize the part descriptions to help your reader:
    (a) spatial order (top to bottom, outside to inside), or
    (b) priority order (most to least important), or
    (c) chronological order (order of [dis]assembly).


    • Include relevant specific features (such as size, shape, color, material, technical names).
    • Omit irrelevant background, confusing details, and needless words.
  • COMPARISON. Compare features or parts with other things already familiar.
  • CONTRAST. Contrast properties with different ones to reveal their significance.

Signals for Your Reader

  • FORMAT. Clarify your text with:
    • Heads. Identify topics with clear, nested section headings.
    • Lists. Itemize related features with indenting and marks.
    • Figures. Integrate figures and text with labels and references.
  • VERBAL CUES. Guide your reader’s expectations with:
    • Parallelism. Use parallel words and phrases for parallel ideas.
    • Proleptics. Use verbal links (also, but, however, etc.) to signal how your description fits together.

Three Roles for These Guidelines

    1. Audience analysis.
      The guidelines introduce the importance of writing for and helping an audience that depends on what you say. This concept will be new to many students, who expect to write only for their teacher. Reviewing the guidelines points out that technical texts (including descriptions of technically complex things) have real readers, and that those readers need the writer’s help to understand the thing described.
    2. Writing for a Purpose.
      While students can quickly see that people write and read instructions to help them carry out a (complex) task, they may need help seeing why people write and read carefully crafted technical descriptions.

      1. The Tour.
        One way to reveal the purpose of good descriptions is to tour the description-writing guidelines and give a brief, concrete example of each principle applied. Pointing out the different result of honoring or ignoring each principle, one by one with a simple case, shows just how well-designed descriptions are useful in ways that poor descriptions are not. See the “Giving a Guideline Tour” section below for an easy, systematic way to do this with a slight “crime scene” flavor that interests students.
      2. The Trial Run.
        Give every student a 3-by-5 card marked in some odd way (with a stamp or sticker). Tell the students to imagine the entire contents of their classroom jumbled into a pile of debris by an earthquake or tornado. Suppose that recovering from the rubble that one specifically marked card now in their hand was crucial (for solving a crime or rescuing missing people, for example). How could they describe in words that unique physical thing so that searchers who had never seen it could reliably find it (and distinguish it from all other debris) amid the jumbled classroom contents?
    3. Repair Techniques.
      The guidelines provide students with an overt, shared repertoire of techniques for repairing the flaws that they find in descriptions (from themselves or from others). The guidelines offer goals to strive for in good descriptions, and ways to improve weak descriptive passages. Finally, the guidelines are a kind of loaned experience: they make explicit for beginners what working professional writers and scientists know implicitly through long practice (thus they promote cognitive apprenticeship).

    Giving a Guideline Tour

    An easy, focused way to introduce each of these guidelines to students is to “tour” through them using some authentic technical descriptions to illustrate how they work. Sudden unexplained infant death (SUID) is a practical situation where real-life reporting (description) forms are not only available to the public but eagerly shared to promote their wider use. Hence, I have found that SUID forms from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (freely posted–scroll to page 16-at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr4510.pdf ) provide a dramatic way to introduce the good-description guidelines to otherwise disinterested high-school students.

    The six-page SUID “investigation report form” at the above URL contains many clever descriptive features. First, it includes a concrete example of virtually every technique listed on the basic guidelines for good descriptions above. Surveying the SUID form is a convenient, persuasive way to highlight those techniques.

    Second, the SUID form is heavily scaffolded (with checklists, labeled tables to fill in, and prompted comparisons). Yet this exposure of often-hidden descriptive moves is very much “for life,” not just for school. At the sometimes chaotic death scene, first responders who witness possibly crucial details (about temperature, ventilation, or clothing, for example) need clear, organized prompts to help them record diverse nutritional, medical, and environmental clues in reliable ways. Months later and thousands of miles away (at CDC in Atlanta), investigators need systematic, easily compared reports rich enough in detail to suggest possible causes. The scaffolding on the SUID form helps both groups meet their needs in complementary ways. This is also a keen lesson for students in the social value of good technical description, for writers and readers alike.

    Third, CDC’s SUID form includes front and side infant-body outlines on which paramedics can mark wounds or scars. Many technical descriptions blend words and pictures, so this offers a practical introduction to the general design challenges of effective text-graphics integration.

    Finally, this real-life SUID form has its share of little imperfections that students can be asked to find and improve by using the guidelines (it needs a better way than a small empty box, for instance, to capture information about prescription and OTC medications that the infant was taking). So it also affords a nice opportunity to explore the benefits of guideline-based text revision. The usability features make this case a very helpful instructional tool.

    Comparison with Darlene Smith-Worthington

    Several items in the guidelines here overlap with those that Darlene Smith-Worthington includes in her Technical Communication: Writing Descriptions (Perfection Learning, 1997, 32 pp.), a short high-school technical writing text. Smith-Worthington approaches description writing quite broadly. She spends time on general audience analysis, on “observing things,” and on literary terminology (simile contrasted with metaphor and analogy, for example). Her guidelines for writing and revising descriptions are helpful, but they appear only late in her text (pp. 16 and 24, the last half of the book). Several extended example descriptions treat familiar but mechanically complex objects (a rotary egg beater, a clothes hanger) and could support much more commentary than they receive. One strength of her book is her use of nutrition labels and similar tabular product specifications, which she cleverly contrasts with descriptions in sentence and paragraph format.

    My approach to teaching technical description places greater stress than Smith-Worthington does on the psychological and linguistic techniques that make good descriptions good. I follow the same empirical, research-based approach to teaching technical writing that the American Federation of Teachers promotes for effectively teaching reading (summarized in Louisa C. Moats, Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers, 1999, 32 pp., available free online). The last 30 years have revealed much about the psychological grounds for nonfiction text usability; we should not ignore these discoveries when introducing students to effective drafting and revising techniques.

    I also introduce description-writing guidelines before, not after, the text activities to which they apply. And I suggest explicitly invoking them in every subsequent lesson. They offer an easy way to review at the start of each lesson, an overt focus for practice, and a shared evaluation standard.

    Guideline Commentary by Patricia Wright

    Influential cognitive psychologist Patricia Wright evaluated the helpfulness of guidelines in “Chapter 4: Editing Policies and Procedures,” pp. 63-96, in Thomas Duffy and Robert Waller (Eds.), Designing Usable Texts (Academic Press, 1985). Wright explored experimentally whether people who have difficulty editing (including self-editing) lack relevant knowledge or lack the ability to apply the knowledge that they have (80). She performed a between-subjects experiment in which several dozen people edited a 340-word passage with many known flaws. One group used only general directions, while the second used six-point overt guidelines for how to edit (81). Those with the guidelines made almost twice as many editorial corrections (8.8 versus 4.5, a statistically significant difference) and were much more consistent (showed more intereditor agreement) about which features to change (82). Wright could not conclude whether it was lack of knowledge or failure to apply it that the guidelines addressed (84), but she noted that “editing skills seem very malleable” (83). Guidelines are no magic bullet, but they do seem to promote just the kind of behavior (more attention to text, more ideas for improvements, more agreement about what to improve) that underperforming student writers need. So I recommend guidelines as a reliable instructional aid.

    Contact: T.R. Girill trgirill@acm.org