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Subjective Description

Swans are a beautiful species of birds. "That's just your opinion," you might say. You're right, it is my opinion, but that's not all it is—it's also a subjective description! A subjective description is a particular way to describe something to someone using your unique perspective on the world. 

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Subjective Description

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Swans are a beautiful species of birds. "That's just your opinion," you might say. You're right, it is my opinion, but that's not all it is—it's also a subjective description! A subjective description is a particular way to describe something to someone using your unique perspective on the world.

Definition of Subjective Description

A subjective description is the use of opinions to create an image in your mind. What exactly is a description?

A description is the use of words to create an image in your mind.

There are two types of descriptions: subjective and objective. Where an objective description uses fact to create this image, the subjective description uses opinion.

Purpose of Subject Description

The purpose of subjective description is to create an emotional representation of the subject in the reader’s mind. You can use subjective description to align the reader with your ideas.

The prince was pretty.

Let’s pretend that this example comes from a story, and in this story there is no factual description of the prince. His height, his physique, and the way he smiles is a total mystery. Each reader will therefore imagine him as whatever they imagine a pretty prince to be. For the writer, the goal is achieved. In their story, people treat the prince as pretty - and now the reader, regardless of physical preferences, will treat the prince as pretty as well. The story’s narrative and the image created by the reader emotionally align.

When the goal is emotional alignment, subjective description is often a writer’s go-to tool.

Subjective description Prince Charming example StudySmarterFig. 1 - Prince Charming can look however you want with this kind of subjective description.

The Difference Between Subjective and Objective Description

Most stories you’ll read include a mixture of subjective and objective descriptions. To pinpoint whether a description is objective or descriptive, isolate the descriptions first. Follow the trail of adjectives, concrete nouns, action verbs, metaphors; anything that creates an image in your mind. Then, decide whether the descriptions are based in fact or opinion.

The stained 1987 Amiga computer glowed like sunlight.

"Stained" is a factual description of the computer, so it is an objective description. Although it is vague, the reader’s mental image of “stained” is not highly emotionally dependent.

“1987 Amiga computer” is a concrete noun—something that can be perceived using the five senses—so it is an objective description. It is a real thing, with an actual appearance.

“Glowed like sunlight” is a subjective description because it is an opinion. Objectively, only sunlight glows like sunlight. A 1987 Amiga doesn’t objectively glow like sunlight, or else it would be the sun, and would blind you!

If a description can be verified with a picture, you know it is an objective description. Since you can verify a 1987 Amiga using a picture, you can comfortably identify it as an objective description.

Figurative description: “Glowed like sunlight” is a figurative description in addition to being a subjective description. A figurative description creates an image in the reader’s mind by associating two or more objective sources; in this case, the 1987 Amiga and sunlight. While the two sources of a figurative description are usually objective, the resulting image is always less objective than either of the sources, because a term such as “like” puts the focus on the reader. It is up to the reader to determine how the Amiga glows like sunlight. The mental action of determining an association between two totally different things is a personal analysis, which makes it subjective.

"Glowed like sunlight" is also a simile, which is a form of figurative language that compares two things that are otherwise not similar.

A subjective description is interpreted, whereas an objective description is transcribed. If a description is interpreted by the brain, it is more up to the interpreter what the image looks like.

The ox was strange.

If a description is transcribed by the brain, it is more up to the writer what the image looks like.

The ox had three eyes.

How to Write Subjective Descriptions

Now that you can identify a subjective description, try your hand at writing one. If you can comfortably use subjective descriptions, you will better identify them in passages because you know their ins and outs.

How to Write a Subjective Description in an Essay

In most essays, you will use objective descriptions because essays tend to deal with facts, not opinions. A thesis statement requires evidence to support it, and your opinion is an extremely weak form of evidence. Don’t use subjective description to alter your reader’s opinion. Instead, use subjective description to open your reader up to change by supplying an emotional cue.

Subjective descriptions can be a quick way to engage your reader's emotions or memories, and thereby prime them for your argument.

In most desert regions, the prospect of sustainable agriculture is frightful.

In itself, frightful doesn’t mean anything. What is frightful is subjective, but readers will certainly begin to imagine what frightful might be. Additionally, when readers begin to read the evidence, they will associate that evidence with something frightful.

This example of subjective description would be a good way to introduce a thesis regarding the need to change our approach toward sustainable agriculture in the desert. After all, if the prospect of sustainable agriculture in the desert is “frightful,” it should probably be changed.

The dangers of subjective description: Subjective description has its uses, but always double-check yourself when you employ it in an essay. When writing or reading about politics, recognize that many "facts" come with a bias, and are thus subjective. It is destructive to wield opinions as facts in any arena. Again, if a piece of evidence is highly contentious, it might not be a fact. If in doubt, consider whether the piece of evidence is itself scientific, or if it is a conclusion. A conclusion can be drawn from facts, opinions, and total ignorance, whereas real evidence is found from competent studies.

How to Write a Subjective Description in a Story

You will often encounter subjective descriptions in novels and short stories. As such, you will often see them appear in excerpts on timed tests. Whether you are preparing for such a test, writing a school-related composition, or simply honing your passion for words, you will find that mastering the subjective description is a tremendous asset in the field of the humanities.

When To Use Subjective Description

If your piece of writing is broadly intended to entertain, subjective description is your friend. However, descriptions can be overused even in the richest novels. To determine if you should use a subjective description for your topic, consider:

  1. Have you been describing the facts recently? If in the last few paragraphs you have been stating exactly how things appear, you should consider using a subjective or figurative description for a change of pace.

  2. Would objective description be cumbersome? If stopping to objectively describe the alien mothership gets in the way of the story, use a subjective description instead.

The alien ship appeared like a solar hawk, radiant and divine, with weaponry sharp like talons.

  1. Are details required? Sometimes you might forego a description altogether, if enough has already been said. Don’t repeat yourself, and keep your eye on the action.

Saying nothing at all: This technique of saying nothing at all is commonly employed in the horror genre. A writer may avoid describing a monster’s physical appearance entirely and only recount its actions. This is the ultimate way to create a subjective description for a reader, as anything could be out there doing something scary. The reader perceives their own subjective horror. When a writer limits their descriptions to action verbs, the world becomes alien and psychological. This extreme limit on description is also used in surrealism to create purely mental realities. Without the context of sensory descriptions, characters can appear to exist and act outside the realm of normal space and time.

Accomplishing Your Purpose with Subjective Description

The purpose of subjective description is to create an emotional representation of the subject in the reader’s mind. To do this, consider the emotional aspect of your subject before ever putting pen to paper.

For instance, if you are describing a baseball diamond, you could launch right into objective descriptions of its size and shape, and subjective descriptions about how fun it is to play baseball there. However, what if you really want this scene to communicate your summer nostalgia for baseball diamonds?

subjective description baseball game StudySmarterFig. 2 - Memories about the game shared with subjective descriptiion.

In the event you want your scene to strike a certain emotional chord, it is important to know at the start, so that you can tailor your descriptions to put your reader in the correct frame of mind. If you are clear about your emotional purpose, then you can tailor the details to fit it, thereby creating a more complete image of what you intended.

Word Choice and Subjective Description

When creating a subjective description, your word choice is important. Because subjective descriptions are more complex for readers to digest (due to the reader needing to interpret them) it is especially important to use audience-appropriate vocabulary.

Think of it this way. If you describe someone as having an overbite, a reader who doesn’t know the word misses out on a detail. If you describe a smile as refulgent, a reader who doesn’t know the word misses out on context. Because subjective descriptions trade in emotions, if you fail to touch that emotion in your reader, the point of the image fails.

Unless you want to challenge your reader, you would be better served describing a smile as “big and white”, rather than “resplendent”, if your audience isn’t likely to understand that a resplendent smile emotes happiness and beauty.

Examples Of Subjective Description

In each of these examples, the subjective description is underlined.

When she stepped onto the burning hot pitcher’s mound, the dust drifted upward like the smoke of a firework on the 4th Of July.

The violin vibrated sweetly.

Swift as a cloud, my husband arrived at my porch that breezy midday.

The conditions in Mesaville are deplorable.

The matron was not pleasant, rather more like a titanium effigy.

Subjective Description - Key Takeaways

  • A subjective description is the use of opinions to create an image in your mind.
  • The purpose of subjective description is to create an emotional representation of the subject in the reader’s mind.
  • Most stories you’ll read include a mixture of objective and subjective descriptions. To pinpoint whether a description is objective or descriptive, first isolate the descriptions. Then, decide whether the descriptions are based on fact or opinion.
  • In most essays, you will use objective descriptions, as essays tend to deal with facts and not opinions.
  • You will often encounter subjective descriptions in novels and short stories.

Frequently Asked Questions about Subjective Description

A subjective description in writing is the use of opinions to create an image in someone's mind.

The purpose of subjective description is to create an emotional representation of the subject in the reader’s mind.

Consider what emotion you want the reader to feel regarding your subject. Then, write a description that will evoke that emotion in the reader. 

No. Subjective description does not use facts or evidence. Objective description uses facts and evidence.

You will often encounter subjectives descriptions in novels and short stories. If your piece of writing is broadly intended to entertain, subjective description is your friend.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

A subjective description is the use of _____ to create an image in your mind. 

The purpose of subjective description is to create an _____ representation of the subject in the reader's mind.

Most stories you'll read include a mixture of _____ and _____ descriptions.

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