How to write a descriptive essay

person writing a descriptive essay

It is often said that it's "all in the details." This statement is probably more true when it comes to writing a descriptive essay than for any other kind of writing. The trick is in finding a balance: How many details should I include? How do I know if I have too many?

Consider first of all your purpose. What are you attempting to accomplish with your description? Are you identifying someone who is going to be picked up at an airport? Are you describing a home you plan to buy? Do you want to convince your friends that a particular destination would be perfect for the next group outing? Knowing exactly how you expect to use your descriptive passage is the first step in planning. If it's for a school assignment, be sure you find out what your teacher wants you to accomplish—and in how many words.

Person, place, or thing

Remember the grade school definition of a noun? It's the name of a person, place, or thing. Generally, you will be describing one of the above. "Thing" can have a pretty broad definition. It could something as common as a house pet or as exotic as an imaginary creature from outer space. It could be concrete or abstract. Describing something you can perceive with your senses is usually easier than describing an abstract idea such as "love," "patriotism," or "confusion." Keep that in mind if you are allowed to pick your own topic.

Start with a brainstorming session. If you have a picture of the person, object, or place, keep it handy. Write down all the words you can think of to describe the person/place/thing. It may help to group the words by categories. Think colors, senses, action, and emotions.

Use good sense(s)

Most people tend to describe using the sense of sight. Even our language supports that. We "visualize" a scene. We "picture" a funny incident. But we have four other senses. Sensory details are those that describe things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. Your writing will be more vivid if you occasionally include details that use other senses in addition to sight.

You might want to create a chart and write down the five senses, leaving room to write words that fit under each. (Leave more room for visual words.) At this point, try to choose nouns, especially concrete ones.

Create a mood

Depending on the purpose of your writing, you may want to create a feeling of happiness, fear, optimism, caution, or any number of emotions. If you made the chart suggested above, look it over. Do the words you wrote convey the mood you're after? If not, add more. It may be helpful to highlight the best words for your purposes.

Develop a flow

Once you have decided on a mood and are armed with your stock of words, you'll have to decide on an arrangement for your ideas. Your introduction should set the stage for the word picture that follows and entice your reader to learn more. Details must be arranged in such a way that the ideas flow logically from one paragraph to the next. The ending should pull back and look at the whole—and the reason for writing.

Time and space

Your arrangement should follow some sort of logic. Usually, descriptions will be spatial. You will start at one point and lead the internal eyes around the room or across the landscape. Avoid skipping around from one distant point to another. Depending on your descriptive task, you may wish to show the passage of time. Perhaps you’ll describe your favorite place during different seasons or show how a restaurant changes between setup and the rush hour.

Expanding the description options

Look back at your chart of sensory nouns. Now it's time to add descriptive details to your description. This is where adjectives come into play. If you had difficulty creating a mood using only nouns, employing adjectives will make the job easier. Going for scary? Try "creepy," "eerie," "ominous," or "foreboding." Wanting a peaceful scene? Then "restful," "relaxing," "quiet," and "calm" will do the trick. Be careful not to overdo it. People who burden their writing with strings of adjectives (or any other unneeded details) will slow down the finished product.

Spice up your other writing

Descriptive writing is not limited to a descriptive-essay-in-500-word-or-less for your English class.  Adding descriptive details to other writing can make it more vivid and interesting. If you're writing a "how-to" essay about a recipe, tell what the finished product will look, taste, and smell like. Narratives benefit from understandable details.  A comparison/contrast paper can paint a clear picture of both options.

Action

This is a descriptive paper; why would you want to include action? Many times, a simple action can help reveal a deeper level of a character or a setting. Add a smile or a wink to add insight to your character’s personality. Describe the roar of an engine to unleash the potential of a vehicle. Show breezes rippling golden heads of wheat to bring the landscape alive. A description in words is not limited to a still shot. Think YouTube.

Description vs narration

Descriptive writing is very closely related to narration. In fact, it is almost impossible to do one effectively without the other.  Think of description as the background. It is the photograph that introduces the characters and the setting. Narration happens when you bring those characters to life and they move about to perform a set of meaningful motions. 

Final thoughts

Anything you write should have a purpose. Descriptions aren’t written simply to display your ability to paint effective word pictures. You should have a message, a warning, or an entertaining story to share. Your reader should come away with the feeling that it was worthwhile to enter the world you portrayed on the page.