A descriptive essay is a treacherous format. It looks simple and straightforward enough until it reveals to you its hidden depths. A descriptive essay, in its strictest sense, is a short piece that gives a detailed description of its subject, evoking a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. A typical topic would be an object or a place. However, and that’s the caveat, a descriptive essay doesn’t necessarily focus on the appearance of a thing.
The purpose of descriptive writing (as opposed to critical or argumentative writing) is to explain a situation, outline a theory, list ideas or perspectives on the topic, and generally inform the reader on the subject. Even if you cannot, strictly speaking, describe your subject as you would describe an apple or a beach cottage, you can still write a descriptive essay that explains the topic in detail. That is why the topics of a descriptive essay might include past events, particular experiences, or feelings. Experienced essay writers can create descriptive essays about such abstract things as, for example, jazz music, the theory of evolution, or political polarization of society. The goal is to create a clear impression about the subject for the reader – and here is how you do it.
Choose your topic carefully
Normally, you will be given a specific topic or a choice of prompts, so just skip this step if that is the case. However, some instructors just want you to practice the format, so they don’t care about the topic you choose as long as you write in the spirit of it. Moreover, you might want to undertake the assignment independently as a creative challenge. In that case, here are a few tips:
- Choose something personal, for example, your favorite place, your treasured possession, or your childhood imaginary friend
- Run away with your imagination and describe an experience that isn’t yours, for example, a day living in a Romano-British villa or a Medieval battle from a knight’s perspective
- Take a challenge a step further and describe an abstract feeling, for example, jealousy or anxiety
- Get all educational and describe a theory or a concept from your area of academic interest in simple terms to make it accessible to anyone
Take time to brainstorm
Once you’ve found the subject that enthused you, take time to imagine it and jot down your impressions and ideas before you start writing. You might want to create a mind map of your subject in order to get a broader range of sensory details and associations for every aspect of it. For example, for an afternoon in the autumn park, the associative array might look like this: “orange, yellow, red, mellow colors, the taste of apples, humidity, raindrops playing in the slanting sunlight, mossy, earthy smells, echoing sounds, the rustling of the fallen leaves, cold fingertips, feeling of the mist of the face, etc.”
Follow the structure
To avoid aimless rambling, outline your essay. Don’t forget about the classic 5-paragraph structure:
Set the scene for your description, and introduce your subject. This is where you must spark initial interest and grab the reader’s attention. Use creative, unexpected hooks to intrigue your audience. Also, an introduction is the place to put forward your thesis statement. For a descriptive essay, as for any other type of paper, it’s the key idea for your piece. In essence, it’s the topic of your essay plus the impression you want to create about it. For example, “We never remember our childhood in its entirety – rather an idea of childhood that we fill with events from our memory like a coloring shape with crayons.”
- Main body
Plan your essay’s body. It doesn’t have to be strictly 3-paragraph long, but it will benefit from having a clear beginning, middle, and end. Organize your description chronologically, spatially, and hierarchically as a linear story, or invert it for the desired effect.
Wrap it up with a strong conclusion cementing the overall impression. Do not add new details to your description of the subject here. You can, however, evaluate the subject from a personal point of view, summarize your thoughts about it, or invite your readers to ponder over the topic with a thought-provoking question. Whichever strategy you choose, make sure it reinforces your intended impression instead of watering it down.
Choose vivid language
One of the central aspects of descriptive writing is emotional and vibrant descriptive language. This type of writing gives you more freedom than analytical or critical, so go have a field day with this assignment!
- Use figurative language
Employ rhetorical devices such as metaphor, simile, and other non-literal meanings of the words. This will help you to create a memorable, vivid picture and explain abstract things. For example, “By the end of the nineteenth century, the classical tonal music was like a ripe nectarine moments before it succumbs to fermentation and decay: it peaked in its fullness, plumpness, and sweetness, and there was no way further, only decadence and disintegration.”
- Choose stronger and more expressive synonyms
Expand your vocabulary past the basics into more sophisticated territory. This might help you create a firmer image in the reader’s mind. Instead of “jumping around,” why not “prancing about”? Try exchanging “running fast” for “bolting forward.” Ditch plain “play in the yard” in favor of “frolic on the green,” etc. However, use thesaurus with caution! Otherwise, you might end up sounding ridiculous. Only use words whose meanings you know for sure and understand accurately.
- Lean into sensory words
Appeal to all five senses of your reader. This is especially important for concrete objects but also works for explaining abstract things and creating a memorable impression. Get back to your mind map for inspiration. Explain not only how the subject looks but also how it feels, smells, tastes, and sounds. Here you might step into creative or even poetic writing, especially when describing something abstract, but as long as you make an impression, you do it right. For example, “Childhood smells of candy floss, sounds like mother calling you home for dinner, feels like sunlight on your face, tastes like melon bubblegum.”
Tell a story
Although it’s not a narrative essay, and you don’t have to follow a three-act structure, your descriptive essay will benefit from a story arc. First of all, a pinch of dramatic tension will reinforce the overall impression – and that’s what we are going for with our description. Yet most importantly, it will give you some structure. It’s easy to fall into an incoherent stream-of-consciousness writing style without any plan. A storyline or a hint of a conflict will keep you focused and make your description more logical and organized.
Know what you aim for
Speaking of keeping focus. Your description should work towards a coherent impression. Try to summarize in one word what you are trying to evoke in your reader’s mind. Is it melancholy, joy, conflict, serenity, curiosity, or nostalgia? To create a memorable descriptive essay, choose this target impression and lay it over your entire description as a filter. Compare the words and metaphors you choose against this focus impression. Do they all work toward it? Do some of them clash with the feeling you are aiming for? How can you change them, so everything sounds in unison?
Polish it up
“Now, all that’s left is to revise my essay for mistakes, and it’s good to go!” Not so fast. First, you have to edit it to perfection.
- Read your essay aloud
Listen to it. Are there any awkward sentences or repetitive expressions? Do the sounds of your essay work towards the overall impression you are trying to create? Could it be that your essay benefits from more alliteration, assonance, or onomatopoeia?
- Show your essay to others
This step is crucial when it’s a high-stakes assignment. You might want to hear some feedback from your teachers, peers, or family members before submitting it for grading. Keep an open mind and note any constructive criticism. Edit accordingly.
- Proofread for mistakes
When you have already amended your essay for better readability, stronger words, sensory language, structure, etc., you can proofread it for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. By now, you might be a bit tired and cross-eyed. Try letting it sit for a day or two and returning to it refreshed and with renewed attention.
If you don’t have that much time, another tried-and-true method is to change the font or print your essay out to ensure nothing escapes your attention. This way, small mistakes become more visible. Some writers also advise reading your essay backward when hunting for errors, but this works only for spelling. Unless you are master Yoda, I can’t see how you can discover any grammar inconsistencies this way. Yet lucky you might be.
A descriptive essay is a creative assignment with which you can have a lot of fun. It is one of my favorites, and I hope you will love it too! And if anything feels confusing or challenging, just get back to these tips or request personalized help from our amazing experts. I wish you inspired and happy writing!