Looking for descriptive essay topics? Search your memory (or your neighborhood or a house you know well) for a collection of things that reflect the character of the people associated with them. The things could be tools or household objects or articles of clothing. Or they could be litter from a party, a ball game, a convention, a wedding—clues about the people who attended the event. Make a list of the items. It could be a short list—two items, or even one, described in exquisite detail.
Every once in a while you experience nature with an overwhelming freshness. Recall one such experience and make a list of all the details that made you feel the way you did. Explore the list through each of the five senses: what did you see, smell, taste, touch, hear? Be specific. Avoid reaction words (like “beautiful” or “awesome”) and mushy personification (like trees dancing, the sun peeping, or birds chanting their morning prayers). Describe things honestly and accurately. The trick is to interpret a scene (i.e., to provide a take” on it) and yet seem to be just reporting it as it is.
15 Descriptive Essay Topics
- A favorite item of clothing
- A school as a young child might experience it
- A hospital room that you visited or stayed in
- An individual’s appearance
- A coffee shop, bus shelter, newsstand, or other small place
- A parade or victory celebration
- A banana, a squash, or another fruit or vegetable, or a houseplant
- A particular drawer in a desk or bureau
- A “media event”
- A dorm room
- An elderly person
- A prosthetic device or wheelchair
- A TV, film, or music celebrity
- A student lounge
- Once-in-a-lifetime event
The point of description is not just to describe, but to interpret: you have to have an angle, a point of view that makes your readers see things in a way they might not have seen them on their own. Instead of choosing a topic and then finding meaning in it, you might find it easier to choose a topic in which you have already found meaning. The energy in your essay will come from your ability to find meaning in those details that most other observers would have missed.
Here is a recipe for description:
- Choose a person, place, thing, or scene that has special meaning for you, perhaps meaning that no one else has noticed.
- Examine your topic from the perspective of each of the five senses. Make a list of the details that convey the meaning of your subject. It might help to write a topic sentence (e.g., “Toby’s wharf was a great place to relax”) and follow it with lots of supporting sentences. If you succeed in describing details in a way that makes their meaning clear, you may not need the topic sentence anymore.
- One option for organizing a descriptive essay is spatial: top to bottom, bottom to top, inside to out, outside to in, left to right, right to left, clockwise, counterclockwise, near to far, etc. But a descriptive essay can seem coherent even if the details occur in a random sequence, as long as each detail contributes to a point that is consistently implied throughout. Be sure to keep the reader’s attention by saving the best details for last.
- After you’ve selected and arranged your details, add an introduction and an ending.
- Show a draft to fellow students in a formal or informal workshop, and see if your strategies are having the effects you want them to have.
- Nadell, Judith, et al. The Macmillan Reader. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.
- Raymond, James C. Moves Writers Make. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.