WRITING A DESCRIPTIVE ESSAY
The aim of description is to make sensory details vividly present to the reader. Although it may be only in school that you are asked to write a specifically descriptive essay, description is an important element in many kinds of writing. Description embedded in an argument paper, for example, may be intended to make a position more persuasive. However, in this TIP Sheet we will discuss the descriptive essay as it is commonly assigned by instructors as an exercise in organizing sensory information and choosing vivid details.
Showing vs. telling
Sensory details are details of smell, taste, texture, and sound as well as sight. If you choose "showing" words, those that supply vivid sensory details appropriate to your subject and purpose, you will succeed in showing rather than telling. "Telling" words are usually vague or ambiguous; they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The following first example mostly makes statements about what is lacking in the room, whereas the second example describes the sights, textures, smells, and sounds of the empty room:
The empty room smelled stale and was devoid of furniture or floor covering; the single window lacked curtains or blinds of any kind.
The apartment smelled of old cooking odors, cabbage, and mildew; our sneakers squeaked sharply against the scuffed wood floors, which reflected a haze of dusty sunlight from the one cobwebbed, gritty window.
"Showing" uses very specific details: cabbage and mildew, scuffed and dusty floors, unwashed windows. Though the writer of the second example does not actually use the word "empty," she nevertheless suggests emptiness and disuse. The suggestion of emptiness in the second example is more vivid than the statement of emptiness in the first. If you don't think the first example is vague, look at another possible interpretation of that empty room:
The sharp odor of fresh paint cut through the smell of newsprint. Four stacked cartons of inkjet printer paper sat squarely in the middle of a concrete floor, illuminated by a shaft of morning light from a sparkling chrome-framed window on the opposite wall.
Do not mistake explanation for description. Explanation is a kind of telling that interjects background material that does not contain sensory details or contribute to the overall effect–a character's motives or history, for example:
The tenants had moved out a week earlier because the house was being sold to a developer. No one had bothered to dust or clean because they assumed the apartment was going to be knocked down and replaced with single-family homes like those built just a block away.
When description devolves into explanation (telling rather than showing), it becomes boring.
Once you are ready to abandon the attempt to explain or to tell about, evaluate your subject in terms of visual, auditory, and other sensory details. Think in concrete terms. The more you are interested in and connected to the subject, the easier it will be to interest your reader, so if you describe a person, choose a person whose characteristics stand out to you. If you describe a place or a thing, choose one that is meaningful to you.
You are painting a picture that must be as clear and real as possible, so observe carefully and, preferably, in person. Note what sets this subject apart from others like it. If the subject is a person, include physical characteristics and mannerisms. Describe abstractions such as personality traits only insofar as you can observe them. For example, do not tell the reader your biology instructor is a neat, meticulous person; show your reader the instructor's "dust-free computer monitor and stacks of papers with corners precisely aligned, each stack sitting exactly three thumb-widths from the edge of the desk." How a subject interacts with others is fair game for description if you can observe the interaction. On the other hand, a subject's life history and world perspective may not be, unless you can infer them, for example, from the photos on his walls or the books on his bookshelf.
Similarly, if the subject of your description is an object or a place, you may include not only its physical appearance but also its geographic, historical, or emotional relevance-as long as you show or suggest it using sensory details, and avoid explaining.
Deciding on a purpose
Even description for description's sake should have a purpose. Is there an important overall impression you wish to convey? A central theme or general point? This is your thesis; organize your essay around it. For example, you might describe your car as your home away from home, full of snack foods, changes of clothing, old issues of the Chico News & Review, textbooks, and your favorite music. Or, you might describe your car as an immaculate, beautiful, pampered woman on whom you lavish attention and money. Just don't describe your car in cold, clinical detail, front to back (or bottom to top, or inside to outside) without having in mind the purpose, the overall impression you want to create. To achieve this impression, you should not necessarily include all details; use only those that suit your purpose.
Avoid telling a story unless it is of central importance to the description or an understanding of it. Keep background information to an absolute minimum or avoid it altogether.
Extended description that lacks organization has a confusing, surreal quality and easily loses readers' interest, so choose an organizational plan. Use whatever progression seems logical–left to right, inside to outside, top to bottom-and stick to it. For example, it does not make sense to describe a person's facial features and hair, then his sonorous voice and impressive vocabulary, and then return to details about his eyebrows and glasses.
A quote from your subject or a brief anecdote about him or her may provide an interesting introduction (or conclusion); dialogue can be a great way to add interest to a descriptive essay. In your introduction, you might be permitted to make general, abstract statements (tell about) your subject or supply background information, as long as you demonstrate these points concretely later in the body of your essay.
Use vivid nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and appropriate metaphors, similes, comparisons, and contrasts. Avoid clichés.
Like the introduction, the conclusion is another place you can get away with reflecting about your subject: Why did you write this description? What is its significance to you? To your reader? If you have achieved your purpose, your conclusion should only confirm in the reader's mind what you have already shown him by your use of selected sensory details.
One of the keys to writing a descriptive essay is to create a picture in your reading audience’s mind by engaging all five of their senses – smell, sight, touch, taste and sound. If you can do this, then your essay is a success, if not, then you have a lot of work to do. The first steps in writing a descriptive essay will lay the groundwork for the entire piece.
Step 1: Choose a topic
A descriptive essay will usually focus on a single event, a person, a location or an item. When you write your essay, it is your job to convey your idea about that topic through your description of that topic and the way that you lay things out for your reader. You need to show your reader (not tell them) what you are trying to describe by illustrating a picture in their mind’s eye very carefully.
Your essay needs to be structured in a manner that helps your topic to make sense. If you are describing an event, you will need to write your paragraphs in chronological order. If you are writing about a person or a place you need to order the paragraphs so that you start off in a general manner and then write more specific details later. Your introductory paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the essay, so it needs to set out all of the main ideas that you are going to cover in your essay.
Step 2: Create a statement
The next step is to create a thesis statement. This is a single idea that will be prominent throughout your essay. It not only sets out the purpose of the essay, but regulates the way that the information is conveyed in the writing of that essay. This is an introductory paragraph that sets out your topic framework.
Step 3: Get the senses right
Next, create five labelled columns on a sheet of paper, each one having a different of the five senses. This labelled list will help you to sort out your thoughts as you describe your topic – the taste, sight, touch, smell and sound of your topic can be sketched out among the columns. List out in the columns any sensation or feeling that you associate with the topic that you are writing about. You need to provide full sensory details that help to support the thesis. You can utilize literary tools such as metaphors, similes, personification and descriptive adjectives.
Once you have the columns laid out you can start to fill them with details that help to support your thesis. These should be the most interesting items that you have noted in your columns and will the details that you flesh out into the paragraphs of the body of your essay. Topics are set out in each separate paragraph and a topic sentence begins that paragraph and need to relate to your introductory paragraph and your thesis.
Step 4: Create an outline
The next step is to create an outline listing the details of the discussion of each paragraph. Students in high school are generally asked to write a five paragraph essay while college students are given more freedom with the length of their piece. The standard five paragraph essay has a particular structure including the introductory paragraph with the inclusion of a thesis statement, followed by three body paragraphs which prove that statement.
Step 5: Write the conclusion
Finally, the conclusion paragraph makes a summary of the entirety of your essay. This conclusion also needs to reaffirm your thesis (if necessary). Your conclusion needs to be well written because it is the final thing to be read by your reader and will remain on their mind the longest after they have read the remainder of your essay.
Step 6: Review your essay
It is important to take a break from your writing once you have completed the work. By stepping away from the work for a short time you can clear your mind and take a short rest. You can then take a look at the essay with fresh eyes and view it in much the same way that a person reading it will when they first see the piece.
After you have taken a short break or a walk (or whatever the case may be), read the entire essay again thinking about your reader. You should ask yourself if you were the reader, would the essay make sense to you? Is it easy to read so that anyone can understand what the topic of the essay is? Do any of the paragraphs need to be rewritten because they are confusing and need to be better written to be descriptive?
Your choice of words and language need to convey what you are trying to describe when you talk about a particular topic. The details that you have provided should give your reader enough information that they can form a complete picture. Any details in the essay should help a reader to understand the meaning of the topic from the writer’s point of view.
Read your entire essay over again, out loud this time. Sometimes reading something out loud can help to identify any issues that should be worked out. Read the essay again to a friend or family member and have them give you any criticisms that they might have. Have someone else ready your essay and then ask them if anything needs to be clarified or if they received a clear picture from the details given in the essay.
Step 7: Finish it up
Finally, read your essay again very carefully and check for any grammar, punctuation or spelling errors that are obvious within the essay. If you find any clichés, be sure to delete them, they certainly do not belong in your essay. If there are any parts that are not completely descriptive or don’t make as much sense as you would like them to, rewrite them once again and then follow the proof reading and reading aloud process again to ensure that the final product is exactly as expected. You can never be too thorough when it comes to reading the essay over again and checking for any areas that need to be reworked.
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