Descriptive essay

“The aim of description [essay] 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 [assignment 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
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
“‘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.
“Observing details
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.”
Essay details:
Your essay will be five paragraphs long with a strong Thesis at the beginning of the essay (last sentence
of the first paragraph) to guide, govern, and summarize your observation. MLA format is necessary.
(You can find a template on Word for an MLA essay: Times New Roman 12 point Font, double-spaced.)
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