Abstract Shapes: The Importance of Visual Description

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise shows students the complex relationship between an object and the language we use to describe it. Students learn the importance of considering the audience’s reception of meanings in their word choice. This is useful in the drafting process of a visual analysis of any kind – even an ethnography when an author’s attention to audience in their descriptions of another group is vital.

Description: The class works in pairs to try and describe and draw a random abstract shape. A prize goes to the pair whose describers has best conveyed the description of the shape such that the drawer can most accurately recreate it, sight unseen. They will need paper and pencils, and you will need a whiteboard and marker.

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure - Divide students into pairs. Ask the pairs to move so that one person is facing the whiteboard and one person is facing away from it. The person facing away from the board needs paper and pen/pencil. Once the people who are supposed to be facing away from the board are situated, draw an abstract shape (any combination of lines, arcs, shapes, symbols, etc.) on the board.

Let the student facing the board see the board and look at the picture for about 30 seconds. Then give them two minutes to describe it to their partners. The describers are not allowed to use their hands at all. The partners who are listening to the descriptions must try to draw what is being described to them. Once time is up, ask each pair to display their results to the class. If you want, you can be the judge and give the group that comes closest a prize.

Have group members switch roles and repeat this exercise with a new abstract image. Once the second round is over, hold a class discussion about the difficulties students encountered in either or both roles. Which job did they think was harder? Why did you ask them to do this exercise? And so on.

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Audience and Voice Exercise

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise raises awareness of rhetorical situation and audience when developing voice. Works well with the reading Role of Audiences in On Writing. It can be applied to any number of paper topics.

Description: Breaking the class into small groups, you will assign a different persona, audience, and situation to each group. The groups will then compose a letter in the voice of their persona, conveying the situation to their audience.

Suggested Time: 50-65minutes

Procedure: For this exercise, you will have your students break up into groups of three or four. Using the list below, have the each group pick a letter or number from each group. For example, group one will pick a letter A-H, one letter from J-Q, and a number 1-8. Write “Group One” on the board, then write their choices underneath. I have them make up silly group names because it seems to get them more involved. Repeat the process with each group. After they have all chosen, tell them what each letter or number stands for, and what category it is in.


A. need money
B. won the lottery
C. engaged
D. got a ticket
E. failed a test
F. got into law school
G. got a promotion
H. got fired 


J. kindergarten teacher
K. George W. Bush
L. Arnold Schwartznegger
M. Kermit the Frog
N. Darth Vader
O. pregnant mother
P. pilot
Q. teenager


1. group of lawyers
2. group of doctors
3. kindergarten class
4. best friend
5. ex-boy/girlfriend
6. boss
7. preacher
8. cheerleaders

So if group one picks C, L, and 8, then they have to write in the voice of a kindergarten teacher, telling a group of cheerleaders that they got engaged.

Have each group work together to create a letter or story. Remind them that they should think about the kind of language that person or group would understand or use most.

When they are finished, have them read them out loud, using the voice if possible.

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Brain Teaser: Voice Without Word Choice

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise fosters creative thinking in descriptions, development of voice, and playing effectively with sarcasm.

Description: Students must write without the freedom of word choice, forcing them to compensate and develop other aspects of their voice with the selection of adjectives you give them. You should consider some unlikely persons, places, and things to pair those adjectives with. 

Suggested Time: 10 – 40 minutes

Procedure: Compile your group of words one of a few ways. Either have the class (without telling why) contribute adjectives and adverbs of their own to write up on the board, or with their help, select a number of them from a recent reading. Select a few adjectives from among these. Then, ask them to describe certain occupations or entities usually not grouped with those words. For instance, select three words out of the group, like “Cornucopian”, “opulent”, or “affluent” and ask them to describer a beggar. Or, you might ask them to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger using the words “Tenuous”, “Feeble”, and “Sickly”.

The trick is for them to creatively – using other components of style, namely their imagination but also things like tone and sentence structure – describe these people, places, things by their adjective antonyms. Importantly, they can’t ever say that the beggar, for example, was simply “not” any of those words. Perhaps they’ll compare him to other beggars, i.e. "he was an upper-class, high fluting, rather opulently dressed beggar", or perhaps they’ll have the beggar imagine being such things though he isn’t. If your class is stuck, give them this example to help them see what’s possible.

The exercises main goal is to improve their creativity, forcing them to write out of a difficult situation with something other than word choice – and to discover how colorful sarcasm might work. Take note of the ways students try to get out of it--because this is an exercise that you can do repeatedly, using different words and with different objects to describe. If you have the class repeat it, make their first escape techniques taboo for their next attempt.

Discuss the results as a class. If you’re working through a draft or a short story or an article, etc, you might assign a journal in which they take a person, place, or thing from their piece and retool their description using what they’ve learned. Another option is to ask them to bring their draft to class, and perform the exercise the second time on their own writing.

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Changing Voices—The Helpful and Unhelpful Voices in Our Heads

Purpose: This exercise should be helpful when students are feeling stuck in the middle of their writing (and semester) and lack any fresh ideas--an exercise to break up the log-jam of frustration and boredom.

Description: This exercise prompts students to understand all the mental audiences they unconsciously have listening to them while writing and how this might affect their writing in negative ways. It hopefully encourages them to release those negative or critical voices that might cut out the creativity or detail they could put into their writing.

Suggested Time: 30 minutes


  1. Ask students to take out a clean piece of paper and write their names on the top.
  2. Give them a good five to ten minute writing topic, depending on your time--the longer the better, which gives some room for creativity and description, but has enough specific details that you don’t need to spend extra time thinking up ideas. For example, pretend you are sitting in a doctor’s office, or remember a real time that you were, and write about it. You can make up the details and situation, but this person has to be you. Another example: you are packing for a trip with your family. Describe what is going on and what you are thinking.
  3. Now pass around cut-out photos of interesting looking people from magazines. Let them choose which one they want. You will want to have enough available so that the students can have lots of choices. Ask them to make up a name for that person. 
  4. Tell them to put that name on another piece of paper. This will be handed in as well, but tell them you will not know who wrote the piece—the person in the picture is the writer, and the student will remain completely anonymous. Ask them to write about the same topic, but pretend they are this person doing the writing. Write about how they experience things, what they see, what they think. Tell them to be as imaginative as they want, but to take that person seriously (don’t make fun of them, make them real).
  5. After they are done, start a discussion about which seemed "better" to them, or more interesting. Let them know there is no right answer. Some students will prefer the first and probably the majority will prefer the second. Ask about the different writing experiences—who was their audience, what were the helpful and unhelpful voices in their head, was it good to be in disguise as a writer? Perhaps the disguise will lead you to your strongest writing voice. 
  6. Finish the discussion by talking about our own voice as writers and negative voices that inhibit writing. Remind them that although they were in disguise, they were still the ones doing the writing, and perhaps when their writing seems bland or inhibited, they should try enlarging their voice as writers.

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Comparing Tone and Style

Purpose: This exercise demonstrates to students some of the ways that tone and style are linked in good writing.

Description: This exercise is useful for the teaching of the personal/memory narrative.

Suggested Time: 30 minutes


  1. Take two pieces of writing of vastly different tone and style and bring in copies of them for your students. Use the opening italicized section of "Prologue: I Hate Myself and I Want To Die" from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and the first chapter from both The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which were both written by Douglas Adams. Prozac Nation is incredibly serious and pretty depressing. However, it also has some decent writing and much of the section is useful for the teaching of the personal memory paper. These works differ significantly in both tone and style from each other.
  2. Ask students to read both excerpts out loud and then discuss the different techniques used. This is a way to introduce style and tone or to reinforce them later on in the semester. Prompt the students to begin a group discussion about the difference between tone and style in each of the pieces. Provide for them a set of questions to get them started: 
    • What is the tone in the first piece?
    • How is it different in the second piece?
    • Why is this important/why does this matter?
    • How does it affect the audience?
    • What will work for your writing?

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