There were clouds down by the river today. It had been a hot summer and the clouds came as a shock after endless days of bright, blue skies and sunshine. The clouds brought to mind ‘Both Sides Now’, written by Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell, in 1969, in which she reflects on the different ways of looking at clouds. It begins like this;
Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in the way
In the first verse, she recalls the pleasant impressions clouds made on her as a child. But in the second verse, she describes them in a more negative way altogether, from a mature, adult perspective. By the end of the second verse, Joni Mitchell has created a simple but effective contrast in the way clouds can be viewed.
I wondered how I might describe the clouds I’d seen? Easy enough, you’d imagine. Here goes.
There were clouds above the river.
That’s a pretty clear and accurate piece of factual information. It doesn’t tell the reader much more though. It’s a neutral piece of writing.
What about this?
Grey clouds floated over the river.
Sound better? I’ve made two changes. First, I’ve introduced an adjective – grey – to describe the colour of the clouds. Second, I’ve chosen quite an interesting verb – floated – to describe the movement of the clouds over the river. The picture’s becoming clearer.
Not content with this, I changed the verb and added an adjective to describe the river. See what you think.
Grey clouds drifted above the wide river.
It definitely helps by adding even more detail to help my reader picture the scene. I’m not sure it creates much of a mood though. So here’s my next version.
Dark, heavy clouds lumbered slowly over the wide river below.
Now I think I’ve created quite a gloomy, almost threatening feel to the situation with the addition of an extra adjective to describe the clouds, a powerful verb to describe the clouds’ movement, and rounded off with an adverb to describe how the clouds were moving. This would certainly have a greater impact on the reader and is definitely not neutral in any way.
Throughout this short writing exercise, I’ve made a conscious attempt to keep an open mind about the choices available to me as a writer as well as the sort of impact I want my writing to have on the reader.
Next time you’re out and about, take a look at your surroundings and see what sort of language choices you’ve got to help recreate a particular detail of the scene for your readers. When the time comes to sit your GCSE English examination, those choices will have become second nature and will pay huge dividends on the high-scoring questions that require you to produce narrative or descriptive writing.