Descreptive Essay

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.

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.

  • sight
  • sound
  • smell
  • touch
  • taste

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?

Related Essay-Writing Articles

After Shane Cucksey’s seventh graders returned to Corte Madera School after a trip to Yosemite, their classroom swirled with conversation about their jaunts through forests, climbs to awe-inspiring panoramic views, and challenges overcome. The kids were proud of their feats: some crawled through the cold, dark spider caves. Others trekked a steep, dizzying hike to Vernal Falls. And some troops came face-to-face with a stealthy coyote in a serene, misty meadow, with the granite behemoth of El Capitan looming 3,000 feet above them.

Yosemite National Park pulsates with life, from its vistas of towering mountains, sounds of crunchy gravel on trails, scents of fresh grass, tastes of edible wildflowers, and textures of smooth, untouched sand along riverbanks. The countless letters, essays, and books of John Muir recount these sensory layers, particularly within Yosemite Valley.

Before their trip, the students read excerpts of Muir’s writing, and when they returned to class, they were asked to write a descriptive essay about an experience in this vast wilderness. I met with each student, read their rough draft, and then discussed how to expand it by sprucing it up with details that tickled their reader’s senses.

Most fourth to eighth grade writers rely on sight to breathe life into a description of a place, person, or object. Interestingly, current research in neuroscience shows that smell and scent, not sight, induce more vivid memories in one's mind. Most students also lack details that evoke a particular mood, as well as reflections about how they feel at a certain moment. (Some kids are so used to being told not to use “I” in other assignments, so when it comes down to tackling a descriptive piece, they hold back!)

Writing a descriptive essay may be challenging, but children have the material, in their memory and imagination, to create a successful one. Writing a descriptive essay is an important skill that will last a child through college and beyond, and opens creative portals that will invigorate your child's writing and make them more perceptive about the world around them.

Let’s say your child is writing a descriptive essay on their descent into the spider caves of Yosemite. Sounds frightening, doesn’t it? Well, some of Cucksey’s seventh graders feared this activity on the itinerary, even though they were told they wouldn’t encounter any creepy arachnids. After the experience, the kids described the journey as adrenaline pumping, terrifying, yet rewarding. I knew, then, they had the potential to evoke this place. 

Before picking up a pencil, however, your child should consider these questions to figure out the essay’s mood and purpose.

  • What place will I describe to my reader, who probably hasn’t been there?
  • Why am I choosing this place, and not another?
  • Where is this place? How did I get there?
  • Does it remind me of other places I’ve been?
  • How was I feeling? Did I feel different at the end of the day?
  • Have I felt this way before? If so, where? Can I make a connection to both places?
  • What do I want my reader to feel after reading my essay?

When creating description, students should primarily write from memory, but add details from research of the place they visited – specifics they may not have known, like the length of the caves from its entrance to exit, for instance.

After they pen a draft, the fun begins. Teachers show how to beef up descriptions in various ways, but one method is using a sensory checklist. Since many students rely on what they see to describe something, they can use these steps to “dress up” each sentence they write.

Consider this sentence: I crawled through the spider caves.

Let’s take it through the sensory stages to expand it:

The Sight Step: What can I show my reader? What did I see?

I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands.

The Sound Step: What did I hear that isn’t obvious to my reader?

I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.

The Scent Step: Could I smell anything?

I smelled dirt as I crawled though the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.

The Tactile Step: How I can make my reader touch what I touched?

I smelled dirt as my skin grazed the ground as I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.

The Taste Step: Did I taste anything that I could share with my reader?

I smelled dirt as my skin grazed the ground as I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me, who kicked dust from his shoes into my mouth.

Passing every sentence through this process may take time, but students can use it as a preliminary way to bulk up sections of their work. It may be difficult to incorporate all five steps into a single sentence – it’s not impossible, though young writers may be more comfortable with expanding a sentence into several.

In the new, detailed sentence about the caves, there's an air of mystery and apprehension. If your child pays attention to these sensory details, their emotions – and the overall mood of the essay – will emerge naturally into a descriptive journey for reader and writer alike.

Next Article: Undertaking the Long Paper

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