Descriptive Essay and How to Write One

descriptive essay
  • Last Edited: May 11, 2017

This article will not only explain what a descriptive essay is, but will provide detailed information on how to write one yourself.

What is a Descriptive Essay

The descriptive essay is one of the four modes of discourse and composition (Nordquist, 2016).  The other three modes are narration, exposition and argumentation.  While it is impossible to ever write purely in one mode (all four tend to overlap in one way or another), one mode can be emphasized above the other three.  In the descriptive essay, the mode that is focused on is the description mode:  the writer is challenged with describing an experience, surroundings, an object, or anything that can be communicated using the five senses.

This essay is an effective way to hone one’s writing skills particularly in the area of attention to detail.  They are often included in student portfolios because the more one is required to focus on a thing and pay attention to it the more one is likely to be able to write effectively in any style (Nicolaidou 404).  As Baker, Brizee and Angeli (2013) put it, the descriptive essay is a genre in which the writer must “describe something—object, person, place, experience, emotion, situation, etc.” (par. 1).  Not only does this type of genre of writing help to develop a student’s skills in creating a written expression of a sensation, it also allows the writer to take a great deal of artistic license, as the experience of sensation depicted by the writer is a combination of the subjective and objective experiences and meant to be so.

The ultimate goal of the descriptive essay is to give the reader a clear, unobstructed view, sense, feeling and experience of the phenomenon communicated by the writer.  If the reader can effectively conjure the subject in his mind or feel completely drawn into the experience, the writer can consider his descriptive essay a success.  Now you know what a descriptive essay is, so let’s look at some tips on how to write a descriptive essay and what topics are most suitable.

What Can You Describe?

You can describe anything you want in a descriptive essay. Choose a person, a place, a thing. Choose an experience. Choose a dream.

People make great subjects for descriptive essays because there are so many facets to human beings, so many features—one can write pages on any person and barely get below the surface because there is always so much to say.

Places make great subjects because every place is unique and has its own special charm, purpose and significance.

Objects make great subjects because you can bring them to live through personification and really give the reader an all new sense of it.

Experiences make great subjects because they are full of action and give you opportunity to be dynamic and fluid in your descriptions. They are also good for putting your reader in your shoes.

Dreams make great subjects because they are so colorful and random—yet there is a beautiful (and sometimes frightening) logic to them! Describing a dream can be a really fun and insightful process!

How to Write a Descriptive Essay

Human beings have five senses—taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing.  Imagine being without one of those senses, or, worse, without quite a few of them.  You would find life to be a bit more difficult than it presently is.  Why?  Our senses let us know the world around us—they keep us informed and aware of what’s going on.  A descriptive essay essentially does the same thing.  In effect, the descriptive essay is giving the world to your reader by way of words that evoke as many of the five senses as possible.  No matter what you are describing in your essay, you should always imagine that your reader is blind, deaf, fingerless, noseless, and hard of hearing.  In other words, you must be the senses for your reader.  How does your subject feel?  What does it do to your tongue when you taste it?  How does it hit your eyes, your ears?  Does it have a scent?  If you can answer these questions in vivid terms, you will be giving your reader the description he needs to form a concrete picture in his head of the subject or experience you are describing.  This is the essence of a descriptive essay.

Show, Don’t Tell

When writing your descriptive essay, the best advice you can possibly receive is this: show, don’t tell. The “show, don’t tell” technique allows the reader to experience what you are describing and puts him firmly in your shoes so that your senses become his senses. Telling the reader about an object takes him out of the experience—it removes him from the action and separates him from his senses. Instead of feeling the object, the reader is simply receiving data—information that goes into the brain but does little to stimulate the five senses. On the other hand, showing the reader the object gives him the opportunity to use his senses and participate in the experience. Some examples of how this technique is utilized might be helpful, so let’s take a look:

As Chekhov illustrates in the image above, to say that the moon is shining certainly conveys a message—but it is a familiar message in familiar words. The words are so familiar in fact that while the eyes read them, the brain barely processes them. They mean something of course but they carry no weight, deliver no impact. The reader is left uninvolved in the experience of what the moon is doing. When the writer states, however, that there is “a glint of light on broken glass,” something happens in the mind of the reader: his brain is stimulated—the senses are evoked. Sight and touch especially are used here—broken glass is sharp and most readers will be able to imagine immediately what that image is like. Likewise, light glinting on the broken glass brings to mind a fragmented, jarring picture that is also effective in setting a scene, a mood, a feeling for the reader to enter into. The point of “show, don’t tell” is for the writer to create a set that the reader can enter.

Notice, again, how Chekhov uses alliteration to help wrap the reader up in sounds (hearing is the third sense evoked in this way): we have the “l” sounds in “glint,” “light,” and “glass” along with the repetition of the “g” sounds in “glint” and “glass” and “t” sounds in “glint” and “light”. The tongue is literally “taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap” as Nabokov puts it in one of his most famous novels.

If you are writing about a place where sound is particularly part of the experience, don’t just tell the reader what sounds are heard—produce the sounds for the reader using the very words you are writing. For crashing sounds, use a lot of “ck” words and “sh” words, as those sounds help the reader to literally hear the smashing and crashing of whatever is clapping or thundering in the scene. Be imaginative and let your musical side flow out as you choose the letters and terms in your writing.

 

Descriptive Essay Format

Barbara Fine Clouse notes that there are five tips to help the writer construct a perfect descriptive essay:

1.  Use a dominant impression to focus the description

2.  Utilize both objective and subjective descriptions as appropriate

3.  Provide concrete sensory details

4.  Make use of literary tools such as similes, metaphors and personification

5.  Remember the purpose of the essay and the audience (Clouse 142)

These five tips can help the writer when it comes time to formatting the essay. First, they help the writer become oriented to the topic. A dominant impression is used to focus the description. If, for example, you are describing a carnival, choose a specific emotion—whether it is horror, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, wonder, fear, tension—you decide and use this impression to steer your description. Say that your impression of a carnival is one rooted in a feeling of horror: describe the sideshow carnies, their grotesque faces, the freaks that populate the tents, gargantuan signs that lord over the visitors, shrieking at them to stop what they are doing and run to see the latest attraction. When you focus on a dominant impression, you can more easily guide your mind to specific sights, sounds, and occurrences that will allow you to write good descriptions. Secondly, be both objective and subjective—i.e., let the reader know what you are feeling (or what he should be feeling) but also give a sense of place that focuses more on the actual place than on your perception of it. Thirdly, use concrete sensory details—i.e., help the reader feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. Fourthly, use literary tools like personification to bring objects to life.

 

Lastly, keep in mind that you are writing for a specific purpose: you are describing something—a whole thing! So don’t get lost in the details of just one part or element—keep the essay moving till you have covered all the points in your outline. Also, remember that you have a specific audience, too. If you know your audience, try to give them what you know they would like—just so long as you are able to stay true to your own vision of what it is you are setting out to describe. There’s nothing better than being able to please an audience while being true to your purpose!

Give Your Paper a Beginning, Middle and an End

The format of the descriptive essay should follow that of the other three modes of discourse:  it should contain a thesis—i.e., a purpose statement and supporting facts and details that provide the description of the subject identified in the opening introductory paragraph.  Consider it like this: the introduction sets the stage, the body performs the dance, and the conclusion lowers the court and lets the actors take a bow. In your introduction, worry mainly about laying out the scene for the reader and getting them situated. Give the reader a sense of place, time, feeling—whatever your dominant impression is, include it here so that the reader is oriented appropriately. This will be the beginning of your essay, and just like the beginning of a movie, it will let the audience know whether or not to continue on!

The body of the paper will consist of paragraphs that communicate aspects of the subject, from factual data to sensual details.  This will be the middle of your essay. Each paragraph within the body of the paper should begin with a topic sentence.  A conclusion should come at the end that reiterates the main points of the descriptive essay in new words and provides a summary of the main idea expressed in the essay.  A descriptive essay can be long or short:  the prose does not have to be as formal as that used in an argumentative essay.  In many cases, the author should feel free to express himself with more creativity and freedom as the way in which words are used can help create a greater sense of the subject for the reader.  The stream of consciousness technique can even be utilized to help create a more immediate effect so that the reader feels immersed not only in the phenomenon being described but in the actual experience of seeing a thing for the first time, of feeling what is happening or seeing what is under the microscope in real time. The stream of consciousness technique allows the reader to let words and thoughts flow naturally without giving much concern to pretense, form, or even consistency. Internal thoughts are often a mixed bag of emotions, ideas, and fleeting impressions. Capturing some of these in your descriptive essay can really help to put the reader in your shoes.

The conclusion is the end of your essay. This is the send-off—the last impression—the farewell to your reader! Take this opportunity to recap what you have described above or use this moment to convey an overall impression that the reader can take home. Last impressions are often just as important as first impressions—so don’t waste this opportunity to show something great to your reader. The conclusion should also help give balance to your paper. It should be proportional to the rest and roughly the same size as your beginning. If one or the other is out of proportion, your reader might feel slightly disoriented!

The Five Senses

Because the descriptive essay is all about utilizing the five senses, the writer should feel comfortable using words to effect a certain emotion in the reader, whether it is anticipation, fear, curiosity, excitement, joy:  the writer is free to choose how best to describe the subject—and the options available to the writer will vary greatly depending on the subject.  For instance, if the subject of the essay is a trek up the Himalayas, vivid action words and ejaculatory statements may be more appropriate than if the writer is describing a hard drive in his laptop.  Based on how the writer himself perceives the subject, the tone and approach will change—the format, however, should stay relatively the same.

Whatever the subject, the five senses will help you to stay on task. Constantly ask yourself: How does it taste? How does it smell? How does it look? How does it sound? How does it feel?

 

How to Start a Descriptive Essay

An attention-grabber is always a great way to start an essay, regardless of the mode.  For a descriptive essay, a good attention-grabber is one that both identifies the subject and hooks the reader.  Can you do this in one line?  Yes—but you don’t have to give everything away in that one line.  A hook is exactly as it sounds—a sharp point upon which is speared the lure, the bait, the piece of crumb that the hungry reader is looking for.  You have the whole paper to flesh out your subject, so think of your attention-grabber as the headline.  Or think of the first lines of some of your favorite books.  What made them stand out?  How did they compel you to read on?

Once you have your hook, finish up your introductory paragraph with clear, concise language that makes your subject obvious to your reader so that if a stranger stopped and asked what the essay was about, the reader could tell him after just reading the first paragraph.  There should be no surprises after the first paragraph.  At the same time, you can use your own emotions, thoughts and feelings to connect with the reader on a deeper level so that the full experience is something they can only obtain by reading the essay in its entirety.

Don’t worry about getting everything right the first time around. Part of the beauty of writing is that you can go back and edit and revise your words until they are perfect for what you are trying to accomplish. Consider your first draft to be just a rough sketch. Know that you can go back and improve it later on. Let it sit for a while and give it another read after 20 minutes or half an hour: see how it hits you, whether it is effective in helping you to see, feel and experience the topic being described. If there are parts of the paper that you feel use too many needless words, or if there is a line that you think can be improved if it were just re-worded in a different way, go ahead and change it. The process of revision is one of the most important parts of writing. It is like Michelangelo going back over a piece of marble again and again until David appears. It takes more than a few chisels and blows of the hammer to produce every finely ingrained detail. So be patient with yourself and with your words. Give it time and energy and the write ones will come to you—sometimes all in a burst like a great flash of light. When that happens, be glad! Inspiration has struck and it’s your moment to seize it and let that pen fly!

The Most Important Thing

The most important thing to remember when writing a descriptive essay is to be organized:  nothing should be extraneous.  Every line and paragraph should serve a purpose.  Streamline the essay through revision so that it moves quickly and there are no places in it where the reader feels as though you are needlessly repeating yourself.  If you need to use a certain number of words and find yourself coming up short, go back to the subject and look at it anew.  Imagine it is the first time you have experienced it and forget everything you have already said about it.  Looking with a fresh pair of eyes can often get you the new line of sight you need to get over the hump.

Conclusion

The descriptive essay is your opportunity to describe a person, place, thing, or experience to a reader.  Be bold—be creative—be expressive—be original.  Make the descriptions as interesting as possible by immersing the reader in the environment, using words that evoke each of the five sentences.  If you are describing the beach on a cold, blistery day, make the reader hear the sounds, feel the pricks of water and wind, taste the salt in the sea, and see the hard sand matted down by rain.  The more you bring the reader into the experience, the more your descriptive essay will be a success.

Now that you have learned about a descriptive essay and how to write one, the next step is picking out a great descriptive essay topic or viewing example descriptive essays.

References

Baker, J., Brizee, A., Angeli, E.  (2013).  Descriptive essays.  OWL Purdue.  Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/685/03/

Clouse, Barbara Fine.  The Student Writer.  NY:  McGraw-Hill, 2013.  Print.

Nicolaidou, Iolie. “E-portfolios supporting primary students’ writing performance and peer feedback.”  Computers & Education, vol. 68 (2013): 404-415.

Nordquist, R.  (2016).  Modes of discourse.  Thoughtco.  Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/modes-of-discourse-composition-1691399

Nordquist, R.  (2017).  5 model descriptive paragraphs.  Thoughtco.  Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/model-descriptive-paragraphs-1690573

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