Description Papers: A Fun Presentation of the Essay

First, let me tell you my second field is Old English and I love riddles. (Those of you who know what that means, stay with me. We’re going somewhere else.) And I like introducing riddles to people. So, I can use the Exeter Riddles to get some thinking going.


First, I pass out a page (or two) with some of the Exeter Riddles on them. I like 5, 9, 24, 26, 29, 34, 48, 61, and 63. That’s enough to keep folks busy. (It might be too much actually.) Then I have the students write what they think are the answers. I have done this with younger kids and it takes about thirty minutes. Then, for the college students, I would put them in groups and let them argue for their answers. Can they come to a consensus? It’s a description, but is it clear?

Here’s Riddle 26:

Part of the earth grows lovely and grim
With the hardest and fiercest of bitter-sharp
Treasures–felled, cut, carved,
Bleached, scrubbed, softened, shaped,
Twisted, rubbed, dried, adorned,
Bound, and borne off to the doorways of men–
This creature brings in hall-joy, sweet
Music clings to its curves, live song
Lingers in a body where before bloom-wood
Said nothing. After death it sings
A clarion joy. Wise listeners
Will know what this creature is called.

(Answer at the end.)

That’s the introduction for the description paper.

The Assignment

For a residential college, have the students write a paper describing something they brought from home. BUT the other students should not be able to guess what it is right away. In fact, the longer it takes them to guess, while they still can, the better. The best would be for people to guess on the last line or not to be able to guess and yet, when you tell them what it is, everyone agrees it should have been obvious.

For a commuter or mixed college, have the students choose something that they care about. I might write about a cold circle with eyes that don’t see in weathered violet with gray lashes, old but new, close at hand. They wouldn’t have to know “my great-great grandmother’s silver and amethyst ring” but an heirloom ring or bracelet would be good. I would have to write enough that you could get it…

My students loved this paper and I am going to use it again this year for the first time in a while.

The test or the unveiling

After it is written, have two or three other students read it. Have them write down where they knew what the thing was and write down what the thing is. Then have the students read them out loud (if you want) and let the class guess.

It’s a fun description exercise and it helps the students get to know each other.

So what’s the answer?

No one knows.
Suggestions include sword, drink, musical instrument, Damascene sword, wine cask, John Barleycorn, lyre, harp, drum. Some of my younger students thought: tree, wind chime.

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