How to write a descriptive essay? The purpose of a descriptive essay is to create an impression on the reader. This type of theme should excite the reader’s senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell) through the use of vivid words and details.
How to Write a Descriptive Essay:
- How to Write a Good Description
- Descriptive Essay Structure
- Descriptive Essay Writing Tips
- Descriptive Essay Writing Steps
- Descriptive Essay Ideas
How to Write a Good Description
Good description is essential for all writing, from business reports to personal letters to poems to persuasive essays. Description commits writers to honesty by pinning down vague statements with concrete details. Honest description shows the world as it is with all its warts, pimples, and secret beauties. It challenges safe stereotypes and preconceptions by getting down on its knees to scrutinize the topic closer, to find and report what’s really there. In persuasive or research papers, powerful description can support a thesis in combination with statistics and other facts.
Re-experience: Don’t Think in Words
Description is created by mentally reliving what you hope to describe. Thoreau and O’Keeffe must have had this in mind when they wrote the sentences heading this chapter. A catalog may help as a brain teaser, but it won’t create quality description. For that you must create an idea on which the description hangs, and you must concentrate on seeing and feeling your subject, not on choosing descriptive words. Evoke it inside yourself, and only then describe it in words. Re-experiencing often leads to vivid words naturally and ties description together.
Experience the subject from inside, not from outside. Allow yourself to become your subject, let it speak through you; don’t treat it as an object. At its extreme, this is the mystical experience of poets and fiction writers, when they swear something “wrote itself.” But even a restaurant menu writer must see, taste, and smell dishes to describe them well. Business reports and college papers require it, too. The more you re-feel or visualize your topic, the easier vivid description will be.
Some writers can type or write as they re-experience, but many writers can’t. If words block experiencing, try this: Sit back, pen out of reach, and picture your subject, imagining new details as you expand into it. Relax. Let the topic talk. Release your subconscious. Censor nothing. Accept everything. Concentrate on seeing even more sharply as you go on. Push your memory, recall facts, try all your senses, and daydream. Most people stop when the first shadowy pictures appear. You should continue. Go slower, deeper. After a vivid experience gels, record your sensations on paper, still not paying attention to words. Simply record vivid images, allowing new description to flow too. Later you will take control and fine tune the picture. As W. E. B. Du Bois said, “Produce beautiful things, but stress the things rather than the beauty.”
Use Brain Teasers to Train Your Eye
Experiencing concentrates on unrestricted seeing. Brain teasers prod your eye in a more organized way. The two most important descriptive brain teasers are Senses and Listing Examples. If as you re-experience your topic, you only see obvious things, switch senses. Concentrate on hearing your topic or smelling or touching it. Or consciously list examples for your topic. Then experience it.
Suppose you’re describing to your boss flaws in the design of the store you work in. Be a customer. Walk through the door. Wait! How does the door open?
Is it a pull door people always push because it has a horizontal, long handle, not a small grabber? Feel yourself jolt as the door bounces—loose from many bumps, shabby. It angers people. How about the entranceway—cluttered with gumball machines and a kiddie ride. The sound of the whirring, whumpy-whump of the horse ride and kids begging mothers for quarters. Angry mothers, worn-down mothers. Nickel–dime robbery. Now into the store. The first sight is the line of people and cash registers, instead of a pretty dress, glittering jewelry, or the scent of sweet perfumes. Walk through other stores with your senses. Now you’re ready to write.
For fresher description, push past the obvious with a Break Stereotypes brain teaser. Describe the obvious, then puncture it. Suppose you’re describing the wonderful vacation cottage your family rented last year. There’s the breathtaking view of lake and mountain, the Fourth of July fireworks display reflected in the water, the fish that beg to be caught, the clean, wholesome country air. Stop! Look closer! Listen harder; didn’t you see trash in the stream leading to the lake? Weren’t trucks hauling building supplies up that pristine mountain? Didn’t motorboats roar past midnight?
Comparisons, alternative viewpoints, and metaphors can also stimulate your descriptive eye. If you’re describing a local park, for instance, think of alternative viewpoints. Some people might only see broken glass, litter, missing basketball nets, and a rusted fence. Others might never notice the missing net, but just see dunks, layups, spins, passes, the thunk-thunk of dribbling, laughter, and sweaty drama. Yet others might see the park as it was years ago— a bandstand, people in straw hats, and a popcorn wagon. Allowing yourself to experience these other viewpoints makes you see more. We are what we see, so the more you see, the more you become, and the more powerful and alive your description will be.
Use the Iceberg Principle
Ernest Hemingway explained his descriptive technique as “the iceberg principle.” He said powerful writing only shows the tip of the iceberg, nine-tenths of which rides under water. In essence, he meant that less description is sometimes more because it can suggest more than is visible. When faced with describing a complex or huge topic, don’t feel obligated to cover everything! You may end up with a shapeless catalog. Instead, search for a few key details that capture the essence of the larger picture—like a camera close-up.
In describing a new word processing program, for instance, you’d probably confuse and bore readers by detailing all its features. Anyone who has resolutely begun to read the manual that accompanies a computer knows what I mean. You might illustrate the computer’s accessibility by describing how one or two functions operate, such as moving a sentence from one spot to another and reformatting.
The iceberg principle draws readers in close. That perspective creates surprise and drama. It also requires you to trust your reader. By relying on a small, intimate detail, you hope the reader will infer the larger picture by actively imagining along with you. If someone writes, “Ralph set fire to the child’s kite,” there’s no need to add, “I think it was cruel.”
Describing a red-veined, bulby nose and a sleek, powdered nose suggest quite different things about the noses’ owners. Such description can carry the idea of an essay by symbolism or by representation. To describe a group, you don’t have to describe every member of the group. Pick typical representatives. This applies to describing “Japanese Cars,” “Presidential Dirty Tactics,” “Robert Frost’s Poetry,” or “French-Canadian Culture in Maine.” If I wrote about women in their thirties, forties, and fifties returning to college, here are two examples of “iceberg tips.” Bernie, a little volcano of a woman, erupted into life after being bottled up for years. She had raised her children and, at fifty-plus, wanted to go into real estate and politics. College started her lava flowing again. She laughs at her mistakes, loves combat in class discussion, and relishes risks. Then there’s Alecia, early thirties, petite, and shy under her long hair. She’s afraid she’ll fail, but is even more afraid of never trying. She knows something creative lives in her, but the world has squashed her before, and she hesitates to risk herself in front of 30 people. She’s taking two courses, just dipping a toe into the water to see if sharks will bite.
Try Other Eye-Training Tricks
- Describe your topic as if to an audience unfamiliar with it. A colleague of mine often asks his students to describe a ballpoint pen and its use (or any other object of modern civilization) to a hermit Tibetan monk. If you imagine your audience knows nothing, you must see freshly.
- Think of your topic as part of a process—not as a thing. A static thing invites dullness, but few things are truly static. The entire earth rockets through space a million miles per day, rotates at 1,000 miles per hour, and its crust rises and falls two feet under us each day. Everything has an origin and an end and is recycled into new life. Open your mind to see your topic as a process in time and space. A simple description of your room, then, connects to all the people who lived there before, how it came to be, and what will happen to it after you’re gone. If you’re writing about handling customer complaints at work, make your audience picture the process all parties go through before and after confrontations.
- Describe what’s not there. A person who doesn’t smile, cry, or become embarrassed may be interesting for that. The fact that my first word processor could not combine single and double spacing was a major drawback. The lack of dorms shapes atmosphere at many community colleges.
Descriptive Essay Structure
Most descriptive essays will be subjective or impressionistic instead of objective. A subjective theme expresses the opinion or attitude of the writer while an objective theme only states factual details.
- Subjective: The tall young lady looked like a covergirl model
- Objective: The sixteen-year-old girl was 5’10” and weighed 120 pounds
Descriptive essays are usually organized in one of several ways:
Spatial Organization Structure
Spatial organization can take many forms. For example, you can organize the description of a room from your point of view, as an observer sitting in the middle describing the things around you. However, if your subject is a physical object, you should select an orderly method of describing it. You may move from top to bottom or left to right, and so on. For example, you could describe a sculpture as you walk around it.
Chronological Organization Structure
Chronological organization lends itself to many subjects for description. For example, if you want to describe a rock concert, you could describe what the hall is like before the show, during the show, and immediately after the show. The same pattern could be applied to the description of a classroom, a stadium, or a parking lot. The description of a person might be arranged around how he appears in the morning, at noon, and in the evening.
Order of Importance Structure
Order of importance may be an excellent approach when more than one type of sensory impression is included. You may choose to start with the most important and put the least important last or, alternatively, to begin with the least important and save put the most important last.
NOTE: Whichever form of organization you use, be sure to be consistent and logical. Include specific, concrete detail that appeals to the senses (the way something looks, sounds, smells, tastes, or feels) in order to create a strong impression.
Read the following paragraph and note the writer’s attitude, how it incorporates the five senses, and the organizational pattern:
An air of death haunts my grandfather’s old, red brick house. As I walk through the creaky oak door, the light barely creeps through the dirty old windowpanes. Slowly, I move into the once-lively living room. While I reach for the light switch, the soft wisp of a spider’s web brushes against my hand. The smell and taste of dust are thick in the air. The new gray, crushed velvet furniture is covered with thick, clear, plastic sheets. The white walls and ceiling are now a dull, dingy gray, and there are little wisps of dust about the floor. Hearing nothing except my own heartbeat, I feel the loneliness and emptiness crash out even louder and harder. Standing there waiting for the kind, loving old gentleman to speak is the only thought in my mind. Then, with sadness, I realize—he’s gone.
Descriptive Essay Writing Tips
More than many other types of essays, descriptive essays strive to create a deeply involved and vivid experience for the reader. Great descriptive essays achieve this affect not through facts and statistics but by using detailed observations and descriptions.
What do you want to describe?
As you get started on your descriptive essay, it’s important for you to identify exactly what you want to describe. Often, a descriptive essay will focus on portraying one of the following:
- a person
- a place
- a memory
- an experience
- an object
Ultimately, whatever you can perceive or experience can be the focus of your descriptive writing.
Why are you writing your descriptive essay?
It’s a great creative exercise to sit down and simply describe what you observe. However, when writing a descriptive essay, you often have a particular reason for writing your description. Getting in touch with this reason can help you focus your description and imbue your language with a particular perspective or emotion. For example:
Imagine that you want to write a descriptive essay about your grandfather. You’ve chosen to write about your grandfather’s physical appearance and the way that he interacts with people. However, rather than providing a general description of these aspects, you want to convey your admiration for his strength and kindness. This is your reason for writing the descriptive essay. To achieve this, you might focus one of your paragraphs on describing the roughness of his hands, roughness resulting from the labor of his work throughout his life, but you might also describe how he would hold your hands so gently with his rough hands when having a conversation with you or when taking a walk.
How should you write your description?
If there’s one thing you should remember as you write your descriptive essay, it’s the famous saying: show don’t tell. But what’s the difference between showing and telling?
Consider these two simple examples:
- I grew tired after dinner.
- As I leaned back and rested my head against the top of the chair, my eyelids began to feel heavy, and the edges of the empty plate in front of me blurred with the white tablecloth.
The first sentence tells readers that you grew tired after dinner. The second sentence shows readers that you grew tired. The most effective descriptive essays are loaded with such showing because they enable readers to imagine or experience something for themselves.
As you write your descriptive essay, the best way to create a vivid experience for your readers is to focus on the five senses.
When you focus your descriptions on the senses, you provide vivid and specific details that show your readers rather than tell your readers what you are describing.
Quick Tips for Writing Your Descriptive Essay
Writing a descriptive essay can be a rich and rewarding experience, but it can also feel a bit complicated. It’s helpful, therefore, to keep a quick checklist of the essential questions to keep in mind as you plan, draft, and revise your essay.
Planning your descriptive essay:
- What or who do you want to describe?
- What is your reason for writing your description?
- What are the particular qualities that you want to focus on?
Drafting your descriptive essay:
- What sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures are important for developing your description?
- Which details can you include to ensure that your readers gain a vivid impression imbued with your emotion or perspective?
Revising your descriptive essay:
- Have you provided enough details and descriptions to enable your readers to gain a complete and vivid perception?
- Have you left out any minor but important details?
- Have you used words that convey your emotion or perspective?
- Are there any unnecessary details in your description?
- Does each paragraph of your essay focus on one aspect of your description?
- Are you paragraphs ordered in the most effective way?
Descriptive Essay Writing Steps
A descriptive essay simply describes something or someone by appealing to the reader’s senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Here are the basic steps to writing an effective descriptive essay:
1. Select a subject
Observation is the key to writing a good description. For example, if you are writing about a place, go there and take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells. A descriptive essay paints a picture for the reader, using descriptive devices and the senses. Create a thesis statement that informs the reader who or what you are describing. Examples: “The wooden roller coaster in Coney Island is a work of art.” “My bedroom is an ocean sanctuary.”
2. Select dominant details
Select only the details that support the dominant impression (your thesis statement).
3. Organize details
The paragraphs in a descriptive essay can be structured spatially (from top to bottom or from near to far) or chronologically (time order) or from general to specific. Descriptive essays can also use other patterns of organization such as narrative or exemplification.
4. Use descriptive words
Do not use vague words or generalities (such as good, nice, bad, or beautiful). Be specific and use sensory, descriptive words (adjectives). For example:
I ate a good dinner. OR I devoured a steaming hot, cheese-filled pepperoni pizza for dinner.
Provide sensory details:
- Smells that are in the air (the aroma of freshly brewed coffee)
- Sounds (traffic, honking horns)
- Sights (“The sun scattered tiny diamonds across dew-covered grass as it peeked out from beyond the horizon.”)
- Touch (“The texture of the adobe hut’s walls resembled coarse sandpaper.”)
- Taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, tart (“Giant goose bumps formed on my tongue when I accidently bit into a sliver of lemon.”)
5. Draw a logical conclusion
The conclusion may also use descriptive words; however, make certain the conclusion is logical and relevant.
Descriptive Essay Ideas
- Write one long descriptive sentence about the greatest meal you ever ate, your favorite childhood toy, or your favorite piece of clothing. Use as many senses as you can. Pack in details without writing it as a list.
- Write your own abstract, dictionary-like definition of love, hate, or madness. In a separate paragraph, show the definition in action. Experience an incident or example. Use picture words, no abstractions.
- Describe the youngest person you know who is pregnant, homeless, on drugs, in college, dead, or rich.
- Describe a hospital room. Find four overlooked details that, like the tip of an iceberg, represent the hospital experience.
- Bring a music recording, photograph, or reproduction of an art work to class. Before playing or showing it, read aloud a one-paragraph description you wrote of it.
- Blind writers like Homer, Jose Luis Borges, John Milton, and Helen Keller rely on other senses. Sit in an unfamiliar setting like a bus stop or mall, close your eyes, and experience only through your other senses. Spend 15 to 20 minutes. Then write a vivid description.
- Describe a technical process you know better than most people (developing photographs, replacing a car’s brakes, or doing a company payroll, for example). Describe this process clearly for a reader with average knowledge.
- Describe a common object like a button, key, scar, or can opener. Discover details others might overlook. Write one paragraph.
- Descriptive Challenge: Describe three of these:
- The sound of an engine stalling
- The way your feet feel standing in the surf
- The sound of a dog shaking water off itself
- Eating a submarine sandwich
- The face of a famous person (as if telling a blind person)
- The smell of turpentine, mushrooms, or rain
- A soap bubble
- I Spy Assignment: To develop your descriptive eye, discreetly observe a stranger for 10 minutes, learning all you can. Study clothes, habits, quirks, speech patterns, as well as physical features. Write several paragraphs. Warnings: Don’t intrude on the person, and do this in a public place. One student of a colleague of mine got carried away (literally!) when he hotly followed his subject for an hour, and the man turned out to be a detective who arrested him and phoned the professor to verify the “weird alibi.”
- Write a descriptive paper on a place. Vivid detail should support a theme or idea. Write two to three pages. Visual rhetoric option: Include a photograph of the place with your paper. Think about how to make the picture’s idea, details, structure and style add to your verbal description.
- Describe a group you belong to—a company, church, club, team, or clique. Describe it vividly and develop a theme.
- Peer groups will re-experience areas of the college you’re familiar with: bookstore, library, or cafeteria, for example. Dig up creative, vivid descriptions, not through fancy words but by discovering sharp details. The groups will spend part of the period observing and writing, then reassemble to share their notes. Strive to find overlooked details. Visual rhetoric option: Include a photograph of the location with good composition, ideas and details.
- Describe your worst fear in bone-chilling, graphic detail. Scare yourself!
- Visual rhetoric: Create a poster for your favorite sports team, club, church or other group. Mix visuals with words. Try to create excitement and interest, but do not use a hard sell.