Details and Descriptions


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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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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Character Development: Making Those Characters A Little More Three-Dimensional

Purpose of Exercise: This is a handout-style exercise for protagonist development in writing short stories. 

Description: You might distribute this handout in class for students to fill-out during class time, or ask them to fill it out as a take-home journal for discussion/drafting in class.

Suggested Time: 15 mins to entire class period

Procedure: Ask Students to complete the following Hand-out, either at home, or during class time:


Full Name:
Sex (don’t write, “yes, please.”):
Age and Date of Birth (as your story does not need to have a contemporary setting):
Birth City:
Parent’s Names:
Favorite Movie:
Favorite TV Show:
Favorite Book:
Favorite Food:
Favorite Day of the Week:
Favorite Hobby:
Favorite Drink:
Favorite Band:
Favorite Song:
Favorite Halloween Costume (if s/he celebrated Halloween):
Religious affiliation:
Political affiliation:
Love interest(s):

Physical Description

Eye Color:
Hair Color and Style:
Skin Tone:
Facial Description (does s/he have a unique nose, forehead, eyes, ears, lips, ect.?):
Clothes (what s/he is wearing or usually wears):
Other Physical Characteristics (ghetto booty, busty, muscular, corpulent, scrawny, disproportioned, ect.): 

Defining Moments

The one childhood instance—good or bad—that indelibly affects who this character is now:
The character’s proudest moment:
The character’s most embarrassing moment:
The character’s career goals of future aspirations/ambitions:
Whom the character would most like to have dinner with (past or present) and why:
Three adjectives the character would use to describe him/herself:


What would your character’s post-secret say? How would it be designed? 

Take time in class to discuss character development, and the characters they created. Have students begin a scene in which their character confronts a specific situation/conflict. Or, if students have already begun their stories, have them revise a scene in which their character’s traits are more apparent.

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Exploding a Moment: Developing Details

Purpose: This activity helps students develop their ideas and can be used at any stage in the writing process, but is often most helpful after the students write their first drafts. 

Description: This revision technique is especially helpful in eliciting rich details (and the students will love the length it adds to a draft). It’s almost like writing in slow motion--slowing down the moment--to capitalize on sights, thoughts, feelings, and more.

Suggested Time: 45 minutes


1. Read orally the following paragraph:

I woke up late this morning--as usual. I had no clean clothes and the fridge was next to bare. Traffic was heavy as I sped to work. Some jerk cut me off and I almost had a wreck. At work I went to my desk and there was a note to go and see the boss. I waited outside her office for a while before she called me in. I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to see me. I went inside and sat down. My boss handed me an envelope. She told me that my services were no longer needed and that I was free to go. I got my belongings from my desk and left. The drive home was quick. I am now unemployed.

2. Point out the lack of details in this paragraph. Explain that any one of these sentences could be "exploded" to create an interesting story. I then read them the following explosion I wrote as an example:

Some jerk cut me off and I almost had a wreck. I hate people who can’t drive. I decided to teach him a little lesson by playing near bumper cars with his bright red 300 ZX. He kept hitting his brakes, and eventually even shook a fist of rage at me. I giggled gleefully--kind of like that lady in Fried Green Tomatoes who got immense pleasure from repeatedly rear-ending the car of the person who had stolen her parking space. Space is crucial, and that jerk will probably think twice before he cuts into mine again.

3. Now pass out copies of the first (bland) paragraph to students while they are getting into pairs. Tell them to choose one sentence to explode, making up the most interesting details they can--as long as their additions will still fit in the facts of the original paragraph.

4. After giving them 15-20 minutes, read the original paragraph again orally one sentence at a time, asking for volunteers to share their explosions. Students usually enjoy this time and are eager both to share and to listen to each other’s explosions.

5. Finally, after discussing the differences between the bare bones of the first paragraph and the rich details of their explosions, have students take out their most recent drafts and choose a sentence they feel is ripe for explosion (with actual details this time). Have students explode the moment(s) they’ve chosen as a means of adding interesting details to future drafts.

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Food and Family: Description

Purpose: This activity is intended to inspire students to write very descriptively, and it can be used as an invention exercise for a personal essay in 1101 or a research essay in 1102

Description: By using a previous very descriptive essay from OOW, students create a list of 10 favorite foods, narrow down, and end up writing descriptive paragraphs about them, including when they first had them, and other detail driven inquiries. The activity relates to “No Woman, No Cry” in the 2006-2007 edition of Our Own Words.

Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes (If students don’t read the essay ahead of time, this could very well encompass an entire class period).


1. Have students make a list of their ten favorite foods from childhood in their journals or wherever you have them do invention exercises (or, depending on what you are having them write about, you could modify the exercise and have them make a list of least favorite foods, current favorite foods, ten foods they would most like to try, ten favorite ethnic foods, etc). This step shouldn’t take longer than about five minutes for most students.

2. Once most students have completed their list, have them answer some questions about each item on their list. When or where did you first eat this food? Who served it to you? How often did you eat this food? What memories do you associate with this food? Do you still eat this food today? How is this food prepared?

3. Now, have your students choose several items to examine more thoroughly. Have them create a list of adjectives that could be used to describe each word. Encourage them to think about using all five senses.

4. (If not read ahead of time) Display “No Woman, No Cry” on the projector screen and have students read the essay.

5. Have the students discuss the following questions: 

  • What about this essay is particularly powerful?
  • Do any images (sensory details) pop out at you?
  • Why do those particular images stand out and what do they do for the essay?
  • What is effective about the organization/focus?
  • What, if anything, doesn't work for you?
  • How does food function as an organizing factor in this essay?
  • How does the author transition from food to family?
  • Is the transition effective?
  • How does the piece "move" overall?
  • In regards to the essay overall, what could have been done differently?

6. Using “No Woman, No Cry” as an example of effective description, tell your students to choose three foods from their lists to write a paragraph about. If possible, have them include a vivid description of the item as well as a specific memory that relates to that food.

7. Call on a few students to share their best paragraph, and discuss what techniques each student has used effectively in their writing.

This activity is designed for a TEC classroom. It can be modified for employment in a technology-free classroom if you make have them read it ahead of time or even display it and have students read it out loud. (It’s not very long)

Don’t let your students get hung up on Step 1. Some students have a hard time coming up with something like their top ten FAVORITES, so you could suggest that they simply list the first ten things that pop into their minds. Have some backup questions and an additional angle for fast-working students to continue working on so that they have something to keep them occupied as slower students are still completing the basic exercise.

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Fortune Cookies: Focusing a Description

Purpose of Exercise: Works well with a personal essay composition. This is a "stretching exercise" that calls for students to expand and develop a particular thought, then revise and narrow the scope of that thought. Good for inspiring new ideas mid-project, or starting a new one.

Description: Students take a fortune-cookie fortune and manipulate it. If you’d like to bring actual cookies, do so! Otherwise, you can search online for fortune cookie phrases on sites like You might compile these onto paper strips and hand them out individually. Requires some printing and pre-cutting.

Suggested Time: 15-30 minutes

Procedure: Each student chooses their own fortune cookie (or grabs a fortune out of your box, bag, etc) and writes down their fortune at the top of a clean page. Have a few extra fortunes on hand in case some students receive a fortune that is too cryptic or for ones that the student just doesn’t like.

Now give the students a few moments to consider their fortunes, then ask them to rewrite their fortune in a few sentences. They can adapt and expand their fortunes but they must stick to the original spirit and intent of the fortune. For example, a prediction about the student’s personality should remain about their personality and not stray to other possibilities like future success, relationships and so on.

Now tell the students to underline any strong words or descriptions they wrote in their revised fortunes. These should be whatever words make a strong impression on the student. Using the underlined words as a guide, have the students write a short fortune for themselves that would be appropriate to put inside a fortune cookie. Don’t feel constrained by Chinese Restaurant language, do it in your own words.

Discuss the new fortunes with in groups or share with the entire class. Consider the nature of the types of changes that were made and question why the student made those changes. The teacher could then ask the students to use the underlined words as key words in an idea cluster or tree to develop other personal ideas for a longer piece of writing.

This gives students a light stretching exercise before a good writing workout. It encourages them to think about themselves and try to capture some narrow aspect of their individual charter, or hopes or fears, and narrow them down to just a few words. Then they are given an opportunity to expand on these few words and say more about themselves.

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Fun with Death—Adding Depth and Creativity to Your Writing

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise helps students work on using details in their writing. Most obituaries are dull and give few details. Use this as a way to have students actually do what an obit is meant to do--celebrate the life of a person who has died. Some may find this morbid but it doesn’t have to be -- have them focus on creativity and positives in their person’s life. It will offer a chance for groups to work together and shows them how to add depth and creativity to poor writing.
Description: “Fun With Death" is a group exercise, so you can use your workshop groups or create new groups for your students to work with. It can be a way for students to become more familiar with working with other people and learning to work inside a group environment. 

Suggested Time: At least 30 minutes

Procedure: Cut out obituaries from a newspaper such as from the local paper or even the New York Times. Give each group an obituary and have them add depth to the writing by rewriting them as a whole group (only one rewrite per group, that is). When they are done, have one person from each group read the obit aloud to the class. Then have the class (and yourself) ask them questions which will lead to more details that they missed, i.e. What was her sisters name? What company was she VP for? What was the name of her lover in the mailroom. etc? Don’t let them answer out loud -- tell them they will have to write them down and rewrite the obit again. Give them about 10 minutes to finish.

Follow up with journal assignment asking them to write their own obits and also asking them to make connections between what they learned writing the obits and what they can then apply to their own writing.

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Good Humor: Using Humor Effectively

Purpose: This exercise is intended to prompt discussion about the use of humor in writing, how it can both help and hinder. 

Description: Students evaluate humor in the student essay “BOO” from Our Own Words(2004-05). Using the students’ suggestions as points of analysis, the pros and cons of each humorous instance in the essay can be discussed, remedied, expanded on, etc. Also, this is a good essay to begin a discussion on voice and why it might work in the author’s advantage to use a humorous tone. This activity is a good one to reinforce the importance of rhetorical sensitivity by bringing in analysis of audience and audience reception.

Time Suggested: 50 minutes

Procedure: The basic concept is simply to pick apart the paper, looking specifically for humorous moments and their effects (intended or not).
Have students individually or in groups highlight excerpts from the essay that made them laugh or that they think were meant to be funny. Using the students’ suggestions as points of analysis, discuss the pros and cons of each humorous instance, suggest ways to remedy or expand on these uses of humor.

Some discussion questions: 

  • Why do you think the author chose a humorous tone here?
  • Does it work for the author to use humor in this instance? Why or why not?
  • How does the author accomplish humor? (through diction, rhetorical questioning, 
  • How does the author use language or word choice to accomplish a humorous tone? 
  • How can the language be altered to create another tone?
  • Perhaps have students rewrite each humorous part using a different tone. How does it change the reception of the information? How would it change the paper as a whole? 
  • What does the author make reference to in order to accomplish humor? Are they relevant references? Can the audience identify? 
  • How is the author’s ethos affected by his use of humor? 

Additional Information: Sample Passage from “Boo”: The room is blacker than the night sky on a new moon. Clutching to the warm, reassuring, non-psychotic body in front of you, you lower your head, cowering from the utter terror converging on you from all possible angles. You move like a bat out of the hell that you are now in towards what you desperately hope is an escape. Suddenly in the hustle, you hear a scream, which is instantly drowned out by the bloody lunatic slamming into the chain link fence mere inches to your right. Turning back to what you figure is forward you find that the person in front of you is gone! You’re all alone, without your trusty guide. It’s impossible to see where to go, and a multitude of eerily loud noises make you feel a level of discomfort unequaled by even that antiseptic hospital smell in the doctor’s office. Wait! There’s a light up ahead, and that looks like that lost soul formerly in front of you! Making a mad dash to rejoin a comrade lost in the confusion of this hell you feel like you just might get out of here. But then just as quickly as your elation hit, all hope is lost. Your leader’s jeans and t-shirt have now become torn rags, and that purse she was carrying is now a twelve inch machete! This is not another horror film, it’s not a bad night in a busy, crime ridden city, nor are you just having a bad day at a shopping spree filled with thousands of bloodthirsty people looking for the best deal. It’s the experience millions of Americans flock to every year. But is it really worth it? And what does this really say about us as a people?

(The Humorous Set-up: The writer hints at the humorous tone of the paper in the second sentence, but leaves us hanging for a bit as he describes what will either be a truly frightening or else humorous/zany experience. By the time he makes the “shopping spree” reference, which is tactfully placed at the end of the (rather long) paragraph, we are prepared for the comic tone of the paper.)

Upon observation of the facts, Halloween Horror Nights just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile venture. Not only is it expensive, but the park is also densely crowded. It’s plagued by bad parking, continuous walls of crowds, and lines longer than those found at the DMV, and once again, it’s expensive. It just doesn’t seem to be something that would attract the average American. I don’t know too many people who like spending money, just to wait around in different spots all night, especially when most of us can find jobs that actually pay us to do exactly the same thing.

(Comic Rhythm: like stand-up comedy or sit-coms, a humorous essay should have a sense of rhythm with its comic moments. Too sparse and the reader gets bored; too frequent and he/she becomes distracted.)

The whole experience can be very aggravating. It’s actually a wonder why so many migrate to Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights. First of all tickets start off at around $59. Deals for Florida residents notwithstanding, that’s a lot of money, especially to the younger age group more likely to go. To someone aged about fourteen to about twenty-five, the age group that seems to be most widely present, sixty dollars can be a major dent in one’s wallet. And that’s just the price of admission. Keeping with the theme of most theme parks, sports events, insurance companies, and religious institutions, Universal Studios squeezes you for every penny your worth. The park makes sure that no one brings in their own merchandise. They actually physically search you and your belongings. Granted the reason for that is to stop the flow of drugs, alcohol, and weapons into the park, but if they catch you bringing in a picnic basket of sandwiches, or any outside food, they’ll make you get rid of it before you’re allowed entry into the attraction. After they strip you of your dignity and your carefully hand-crafted, 30 cent sandwiches, they make sure to clean you out by overcharging every single product inside. I remember one slice of pizza and a small drink fell somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to fifteen dollars. Needless to say, other than a bottle of water, that was the only purchase I made. This would logically seem like enough to drive most people away from the attraction. As an American myself, I can tell you the overwhelming joy we take in spending our money. So much in fact that I think they should double the entrance fee. That’s right, and Star Wars was based
n a true story a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But because thinning our wallets is not enough to keep seemingly anybody from attending, Horror Nights tries to scare us away again.

(Humorous Diction: Notice how the writer is playful with his language. The people “migrate” to the park, like so many flocks of birds; the play on “theme” and “theme park”; the slightly over the top reference to “hand-crafted” sandwiches. Too Funny? But can humor be distracting? Is the line about Star Wars funny, or just silly? How far is too far?)

After dropping sixty dollars on a ticket, thirty or so on the trip, and another small fortune inside, you are met with one of the most crowded locations on earth, only beaten by the one billion plus population of China, and that’s debatable. The lines are notoriously famous for their length. They’re almost better known than the attractions themselves. Every time the event is the subject of conversation, the long lines come up as an issue. The wait times are so well known in fact, that when someone tells about hour long waits, people show surprise, and remark about how they must be getting shorter. The average time I’ve had to wait in the past has been no less than two hours. I’ve never gotten into an attraction faster than forty five minutes, and that was on a blue moon, during a planetary alignment, at the stroke of midnight. With these wait times, you can only expect to experience a fraction of the attractions you paid to see. In fact, when you go, you pay full well knowing that you’ll only be seeing about two or three of the haunted houses offered. Even though you’re carrying that lucky rabbit’s foot, you woke up on the right side of the bed, and a part of you is hoping that somehow, someway, through the intervention of a higher power, you will just happen to be the only person in the world going on your night, but you know better. But because the lines keep returning along with the event year after year, this is obviously not enough to turn people away. But long lines and empty bank accounts aren’t the end of the horror that is Halloween Horror Nights.

(Appropriate Comical References: Does the line about planetary alignment seem appropriate for the subject matter? Even when trying to make the reader laugh, the humor still manages to remain relevant and appropriate. Transitions: notice how the last two paragraphs have similar transitional sentences at the end. How does the writer avoid boring repetition with humor?)

Not only are the lines insanely long, the park itself is crowded beyond belief. Just walking up to the front gates can sometimes be an act of pure agility, speed, strength, and satellite imagery, in order to find a path through. But once inside, nothing will help you navigate through the masses, unless of course, you happen to be one of the few mystical humans that can fly. There is a literal swarm of people, everywhere you look. The park’s 7 p.m. opening is like a dinner bell to a starved wolf pack, and the place is packed tight no more than fifteen minutes after the hoards of excited patrons are unleashed. You and your friends find yourselves back in kindergarten, holding hands as you travel from place to place, so as not to get lost. If the attractions aren’t enough for you, just going from point A to point B, is an event in itself. Just walking around, you will repeatedly find yourself in intimate contact with complete strangers. Journeying from place to place can sometimes be an experience of personal violation by half of the people you come across. But even the combined issues of the price, the wait, and the can of sardines effect created by the park’s popularity aren’t enough to turn people away.

(Again: Is this humor effective, or too much? If it’s effective, why? If it’s too much, at what point and for what reason?)

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Learning to Lie—The Importance of Including Details

Purpose: This exercise encourages students to discover and invent convincing details. This is a good exercise to use in the beginning of the drafting process, when students are busy building their early writing through the discovery of significant details--but it is also a lesson in revision in that information and detail may be added at any point during the drafting sequence. 

Description: “Learning to Lie” makes use of each student’s experience, through the selection of exact details, imagery, and sense evocations, in order to illuminate the role of specificity in the writing process

Suggested Time: As little as 15-20 minutes, or nearly an entire session-- depending on the number of student samples chosen to be read aloud and questioned.

Procedure: Ask the students to write in two or three sentences, three unusual, startling, or amusing things they did or that happened to them. One thing must be true, the other two must be "lies". Ask them to use specific details.

Read one example as follows: 

  • Elvis Presley wrote me a two-sentence letter after I sent him a poem I written about him and a picture of my sister in a bikini.
  • The first time I heard him play, Buddy Rich through me a drum stick during a drum roll and never missed a beat.
  • I asked Mick Jagger to sign a program for me, but he said he preferred to sign my left, white shoe. And he did.

Have the students write three of their own. Then have students, one by one, read them to the class. Other students are allowed to ask three questions that pertain specifically to the details. For example, someone might ask (using the example above), "Why did you send Elvis your sister’s picture instead of your own?" Or "What was Buddy Rich playing?" Or "Do you still have the white shoe?"

The writers have to be able to think on their feet, to make up more convincing details, to "lie". Then ask for a vote as to which story is true and which were fictitious. It is surprising how many students find that they are already excellent "storytellers."

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Silent Film Exercise—Creating Original Dialogue and Writing Descriptively

Purpose: This exercise will actively expose students to their own assumptions and biases as well as those of their peers. Students will gain perspective into the filmmaker’s worldviews. It also provides an experience to write descriptively, creating original dialogue for an existing text by examining body language, shots, and pacing.

Description: The teacher plays a clip from a preferably obscure film. Then, divide the students into groups so that they can create a dialogue for the clip that was played. In doing so, each group should consider both body language, pacing, and shots so that an appropriate tone and plot can be applied. Each group should present what they’ve done and present it to the class, making an argument for how their exchange could match up with what was shown. By reviewing the clip with the sound track in place, students can see how their assumption make the intentions of the filmmakers as well as get a greater idea of how their judgments are based in their experiences with other media.

Suggested Time: 45 minutes

Procedure: Choose a scene from a motion picture. Obscure films will probably work best since fewer students will know them already. The scene should have plenty of action or a variety of characters. Play the film clip to the class without sound, but first explain that afterwards they will write a descriptive account of the clip as a group. Suggest that they might want to focus on a single character, invent dialogue, depict the place and time, create a situation or background, or say what happens next. Let them write and share their descriptions with the class. Play the clip again with the sound on and provide the necessary contextual details. Then you may want to ask them to write about the similarities and differences between the group accounts and the screenwriter’s.

Additional Information: I think this activity affects students more if they perform it after their first paper or after they have participated in several workshops or have read several selections from Our Own Words. Since its intent is more conceptual that practical, it suits any draft stage.

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Snap Shots: Details & Point of View

Purpose of Exercise: Fosters creative exploration of point of view, detailed description, and narrative as individuals and collaboratively. Good for a short story or personal essay assignment.

Description: You will need 5 - 13 interesting photographs or stills for your students to work with. This exercise allows students to take a point of view and create a context for it. They then give the pictures purpose in relation to the context they have created. It forces them to bounce ideas off one another in small groups, and to create a plausible start for a fictional work using a point of view other than the personal "I".

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Place students in groups of two, giving each group one picture between them. Separately, each student decides the camera’s point of view, creating a character for that point of view.


  • Who he/she is- include physical description and other pertinent information.
  • Where he/she is.
  • Why he/she is there- what is the significance of the setting.
  • With relevance to this character, find an object in the picture that serves as important to the camera person. Describe what it is and why it is important.

Coming back into the groups of two, now take each student’s point of view, including its contextual information, and develop a "lead-in" (a paragraph) for a novel, short story, poem, or essay. If there’s time, have each group share with the class and perhaps use this forum to point out effective details, etc.

You may also choose to do this exercise by projecting up to 5 snap shots on the overhead. Give the class 5+ minutes to construct a “lead in” for each photo, being sure to address the 4 elements above. Take time to discuss as a class.

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Symbols of Memory: Using Detail to Establish Meaning

Purpose: This activity could be useful as a tool for exploring the use of sensory detail and memory to express emotions; it teaches students to read for multiple meanings, and it accompanies Helena Buonagurio's “Not So Perfect Pancake” (2002–03 OOW) or Na Tech's, “Red Hibiscus” (2004–05 OOW).

Description: Students often find it difficult to successfully incorporate sensory detail to express emotions in their own writing. With this exercise, students will focus on a specific object and express their emotions using details about this object, while also considering the possibility for an object or place of significance to have multiple meanings and associations in one’s life experience. Helena Buonagurio's “Not So-Perfect Pancake,” reveals the power of metaphors in developing meaning: Helena compares her mother’s not so perfect pancakes not only to her overall life experience but also to her mother’s love. Na Tech’s “Red Hibiscus” provides a good example for how you can employ a specific object and describe it using sensory detail in order to show its connection to a meaningful relationship (i.e. the red hibiscus’s connection to the author’s past). Drawing on one of these examples, students will learn to craft meaning(s) from a single object.

Suggested Time: 35-50 minutes


  1. After reading “Red Hibiscus” or ““Not So-Perfect Pancake” discuss, allowing students to explore the meaning that the author draws from this single image (red hibiscus) or have them underline metaphors used to convey multiple meanings (i.e. the metaphors for pancakes). Students should underline images/metaphors and evaluate the title’s meaning in relation to the narrative. Have them find places where the meaning and image merge. 
  2. After this discussion, have students, individually, choose an object important to them and free write for 15 minutes (total—5 minutes for each section) on each of the following: a specific person it is related to; a specific place it reminds them of; and a specific memory of an event that it conjures in their minds. *If students seem to be having trouble thinking of an object, ask them to remember an event or a place from childhood (or high school even). Then have them think about associated memories.
  3. Students should be sure to use concrete sensory detail (describe the object using their five senses) in their descriptions: what does the object look like? Feel like? Smell or taste like? Where did it come from? Does it have other associations attached to it? For example, in “Red Hibiscus” the author describes what the hibiscus flower represents.
  4. Ask a couple of students to share their object and its associated descriptions/memories. Then ask students to respond with their own associations with those objects and memories, which the author’s free-writes may have sparked. This hopefully should lead to a discussion about meaning being relative and the importance of sensory detail in appealing to a reader’s emotions.

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The Exquisite Corpse: Fun With Syntax

Purpose of Exercise: This Mad-Libs-style exercise gets students thinking about how language works via an underhanded grammar refresher, and jarring them out of the world of conscious language use.

Description: You will need index cards; color-coded work best. The idea is that by stringing together random parts of speech, sentences can be constructed which, while they do not make "sense," have, nonetheless, an internal grammatical logic.

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Color-coded index cards work well for this: designate a color for each part of speech, making sure that there are twice as many cards for nouns and adjectives (you might ask students to prep for the lesson by bringing in their own cards). Some students who have trouble visualizing what kinds of words fit into each category (Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb) may feel too embarrassed to ask, so give a few quick examples to get them going. Ask each student to write down two nouns, two adjectives, one verb and one adverb – each on its own card.

After they have written down their words collect them into four stacks by color and shuffle them. Distribute the cards so that each student once again has a verb, an adverb, and two each of nouns and adjectives. At this point they should begin to arrange their cards to form sentences. Articles and possessive pronouns may be inserted wherever needed and verb tenses may be changed or nouns changed from singular to plural or vice versa. When all are finished go around the room and ask each student to share his or her sentence.

Discuss each sentence in terms of language play and grammar. You might emphasize grammar and focus on subject-verb agreement, subject-action-object, or the effect of punctuation. Or, you might focus on the power of word play, active, illustrative verbs, odd pairings, connotations, metaphor, etc. Help students apply what they’ve learned to their own drafts.

If time allows, students could be asked to write a paragraph or a poem around their sentence to share and discuss with the rest of the class, or as a journal.

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Unpacking the Object: Descriptive Details

Purpose: Drawing on a childhood memory, this activity allows students to discover the importance of descriptive details. This activity accompanies Autumn T. Harrell's “Jesus Lives” (2004–05 OOW).

Description: Like “Hypertext” from the Inkwell, this activity serves two purposes: 1) to promote class discussion, especially during the first few classes; and 2) to introduce students to the idea of using descriptive details when they write (this exercise may be most effective with the Visual Strand). This activity can serve as an icebreaker (if used near the beginning of the semester), or it can be used to re-energize your students around when you are about halfway into the semester (or even near the end).

Suggested Time: If everyone shares their free write (and I would recommend that), the activity could take the whole class period. If not, then plan on 20-30 minutes.


  1. Have someone read “Jesus Lives” out loud.
  2. Using the poem as an example, ask the students to:
    Think of an object that you have come in contact with for as long as you can remember: a children’s book or a piece of jewelry, a stuffed animal, a picture, or a rock. Give them a minute to picture their object fully. 
  3. Now ask them to write according to the following questions (they don’t have to hit each one):
    • What is the object? 
    • Where is it? Where are you? 
    • What does it smell like? What color is it? What does it look like? 
    • Who does it remind you of? What is its texture? 
    • You’re starving. You figure, “Why not?” You eat the object. What does it taste like? 
    • You shake the object. What does it sound like? 
    • Do you, like the speaker in “Jesus Lives,” take this object for granted? 
    • When have you “bump[ed] into it, alarmed”? You get a tap on the shoulder. It’s your mother and your best friend, or your aunt and your second grade teacher. How do they react to the object? How do they interact with it? What do they say about the object?
  4. Allow students to write about the object for about 7 minutes. 
  5. Pick some people to share, or (better) let everyone read his or her piece, allowing a question or two from other students after each reading. Since these are objects that the students care about and come in contact with often, there should be a built-in attention to detail and an excitement level in writing (and, hopefully talking) about each piece.
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What Is It? Enriching Descriptive Writing

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise stimulates students to enrich their descriptive writing by using a plain object and writing about it in an extravagant way—using lots of detail, metaphor, and imagery. It makes students develop and possibly appreciate a creative approach to the writing method.

Description: Students will take a normal object and write a creative description and narrative about the object of their choice. By following a set of questions provided by the instructor, students will write a prose style response – not just a list or catalog.

Suggested Time: 30 – 35 minutes

Procedure: Students should pick an object that they have easy and tangible access – a pen, teddy bear, a washcloth, ID card, whatever they desire. They should then write a creative response using the following questions or a similar format: 

  1. You look around the room and see your object. How well can you see it? Where is the light coming from?
  2. You walk over to your object. How many steps did it take?
  3. Your object is lying next to several other things. One of these things reminds you of something or someone else. What does it remind you of?
  4. Pick up the object. How heavy is it? Can you toss it in the air?
  5. Put the object close to your eyes, so close that it becomes blurry. What do you see? (tiny bumps? little lines?)
  6. Put your object against your ear. Does it make a sound? What does that sound (or lack of sound) remind you of?
  7. Put your object under your nose. What does it smell like? What does the scent remind you of?
  8. While you have the object this close to your face, you might as well taste it. Go ahead, stick out your tongue. What is that taste? What does it remind you of?
  9. You are getting tired of this exercise. Get rid of your object. Dispose of it somehow. How did you get rid of it and how do you feel now that it is gone?

In order for students to successfully complete the exercise, each question must be answered in sentence form. Encourage students to be creative in the description of the object and its purpose.

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