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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Descriptive Writing

Descriptive writing involves the careful selection of words to convey a very particular sense of a place, person, event, or idea. Descriptive writing can also be persuasive, in that the writer chooses words that will result in an emotional response from the reader (or listener). Such is the case in Justice Joseph Story's charge to the Boston grand jury in 1819. Below is part of his description of the Middle Passage.

When the number of slaves is completed, the ships begin what is called the middle passage, to transport the slaves to the colonies. — The height of the apartments in the ships is different according to the size of the vessel, and is from six feet to three feet, so that it is impossible to stand erect in most of the vessels, and in some scarcely to sit down in the same posture. If the vessel be full, their situation is truly deplorable. In the best regulated ships, a grown person is allowed but 16 inches in width, 32 inches in height, and five feet eleven inches in length, or to use the expressive language of a witness, not to so much room as a man has in his coffin. — They are indeed so crowded below that it is almost impossible to walk through the groupes without treading on some of them; and if they are reluctant to get into their places they are compelled by the lash of a whip. — And here their situation becomes wretched beyond description. The space between decks where they are confined often becomes so hot that persons who have visited them there have found their shirts so wetted with perspiration that water might be wrung from them; and the steam from their confined bodies comes up through the gratings like a furnace — The bad effects of such confinement and want of air are soon visible in the weakness and faintness which overcomes the unhappy victims. Some go down apparently well at night and are found dead in the morning. Some faint below and die from suffocation before they can be brought upon deck — As the slaves, whether well or ill, always lie upon bare planks, the motion of the ship rubs the flesh from the prominent parts of their body and leaves their bones almost bare. — The pestilential breath of so many in so confined a state renders them also very sickly and the vicissitudes of heat and cold gene rate a flux — when this is the case (which happens frequently) the whole place becomes covered with blood and mucus like a slaughter house; and as the slaves are fettered and wedged close together, the utmost disorder arises from endeavours to relieve themselves in the necessities of nature; and the disorder is still further increased by the healthy being not unfrequently chained to the diseased, the dying and the dead!!! When the scuttles in the ship's sides are shut in bad weather, the gratings are not sufficient for airing the room; and the slaves are then seen drawing their breath with all that anxious and laborious effort for life, which we observe in animals subjected to experiments in foul air or in the exhausted receiver of an air pump — Many of them expire in this situation crying out in their native tongue "we are dying." — During the time that elapses from the slaves being put on board on the African coast to their sale in the colonies about one fourth part, or twenty-five thousand per annum are destroyed — a mortality which may be easily credited after the preceding statement.

(Page 7, "A Charge Delivered to the Grand Juries of the Circuit Court")

Follow these steps as you analyze the passage:

  • Read the excerpt and identify the emotion that it produces.
  • Reread the excerpt, highlighting words or phrases that are particularly effective in producing an emotional response.
  • Choose a sentence in which you have highlighted words or phrases and rewrite it with less evocative words. What is the effect of the rewritten sentence?
  • Choose something to describe in writing. Before you begin writing, identify what emotion you want to evoke in your reader. Choose your words carefully to bring out the emotion you have identified. When you have finished, try describing the same thing again, but this time trying to evoke a different emotion. For example, you might describe an old house trying to evoke fear in one description and sadness in the other.