- Identify techniques of descriptive writing, which will culminate in the writing of a descriptive essay
- Use sensory details in a logical order in each stage of the writing process
What Is Description?
Description is a report of observations made through using the five senses. A description includes all relevant details, such as characteristics or qualities, of a person, place, thing, or event. The use of these details invites readers to imagine that they can experience your subject as if they were seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching it. Another word for these sensory details in writing is imagery.
Description can serve one of two purposes:
Provide information objectively: the details used will be functional, impartial, or public. This type of description leaves out the writer’s emotions. The subject is discussed both clearly and exactly so that readers easily understand it. Academic writing usually features this kind of description. One example would be a biology report on a particular species of fish. The writer might describe sensory data that would allow readers to easily identify this species such as color patterns, number of fins, habitat, and unique behaviors.
Provide information subjectively: the details used will be impressionistic, emotional, or personal. This type of description relies on the writer’s feelings. The reader’s understanding of the subject is guided and influenced by the writer’s personal feelings about it. One example would be if you retold the experience of trying a new restaurant and explained why you did or did not like it.
Description is often essential to narration. It makes the narration livelier and allows the subjects in the narrative to be unmistakably clear.
The Organization of Descriptive Writing
When describing an occasion such as a birthday party, a writer may use chronological order to describe a series of events in the order they unfolded. For example, the writer may describe the decorating of the venue, the arriving of the first guests, the singing of “Happy Birthday,” the cutting of the cake, the opening of presents, and the departing of the last guests. The larger event of the birthday party can be broken down into mini events that occur in a specific order. If the order of the events is changed, then readers may become confused. Giving readers a timeline they can follow is one strategy you can use to keep them engaged in your writing.
Describing things in spatial order is another way to keep readers’ attention. When describing a room, a writer may describe it floor to ceiling, left to right, or even near to far. This will help readers to envision a specific space. For example, a writer may want to describe an office. The writer might state that the wall opposite the door has a large window with thick blinds; on each side of the window, there is a six-foot-tall white bookcase; along the wall on the left side of the room is a teal velvet recliner over which a gold lamp leans; along the wall on the right side of the room is a small, oak desk with a rolling chair. Details such as these are much more exciting to readers than saying the room is 100 square feet with a window on one wall.
A third way to engage readers in your descriptive writing is to place the details in the order of importance. Some writers will start with the smallest detail and leave the most important detail for last, while others start with the most striking detail and gradually shift to the least important detail. For example, in describing a vampire, a writer might start with the red eyes or the long fangs and then mention the pale face or vice versa.
Other common components of descriptive writing are:
- Similes – comparing one thing to another in order to make a vivid description, usually using the words like or as (for example, her lips are as red as roses).
- Metaphors – applying a word or phrase to an object or action to which it is not usually applied (for example, the alligator’s teeth are white daggers).
- Analogy – making a comparison showing how two things are alike with the goal of pointing out something about the comparison (for example, fishing is like catching Pokémon; try as you might, you can never catch them all, and the biggest ones always get away).
Writing a Description
When writing a description, consider the five senses: tasting, touching, seeing, smelling, hearing. Most descriptions consist of a noun and one or more adjectives relating to the five senses. For example, to describe popcorn, a writer may say that it is soft, warm, buttery popcorn.
Keep in mind that adjectives follow a specific order in English: opinion (lovely, wonderful), size (big, small, short, tall), physical quality (smooth, rough, scaly), shape (round, square, circle), age (young, old), color (red, green, blue), origin (American, Japanese, Egyptian), material (metal, wood, plastic), type (four-sided, all-purpose), and purpose (cleaning, painting, cooking). Readers will expect you to follow this order, so deviating from it can cause confusion.
It is important to choose the most exact and precise words to create the clearest imagery you can for your readers. For example, a big house and a mansion have slightly different meanings. You want to choose the words that most accurately reflect your ideas.
Words have both denotations (literal meanings) and connotations (positive or negative associations). A writer’s word choice can inform readers about the writer’s tone, or attitude, toward the subject. For example, to show readers that a house is in great condition, a writer might describe a sturdy, new construction. The word sturdy implies that the writer sees the structure in a positive light. For the opposite case, a writer might describe a dilapidated shack. The word dilapidated tells readers that the writer likely views the structure in a negative light.
Professional Writing Example
Below is an excerpt of “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan. For the full essay, see the chapter on Narration. Here, Tan uses vivid description to help readers visualize her family’s kitchen during a holiday dinner where her American and Chinese cultures clash.
On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.
Questions for Discussion
- What words reveal the author’s tone?
- How many adjectives can you find?
- Which description seems to stand out the most?
- To which of the five senses does Tan appeal? Give 3 examples.
Student Writing Example
The following essay, “My Spectacular Visit to the Arches,” was written by an English 101 student. This essay was written to describe the author’s favorite vacation. As you read the essay, look for descriptive language. See if you can find any similes, metaphors, or analogies.
My Spectacular Visit to the Arches
Throughout my life, my family and I have always wanted to travel west. Personally, I enjoy exploring new places that are unlike southern Louisiana. One place in particular that I especially wanted to visit was Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. I remember being amazed at how a place so different from my home could possibly exist. When I was around thirteen years old, my parents, my aunt, and I were finally able to go to Arches. For most people, traveling on a plane is a simple solution to going across the country in just a few hours. However, driving is the only safe option for me because I have an extremely severe peanut allergy. Even though I knew it would be difficult to travel eighteen hours for the trip, I was determined to see this majestic place in person.
After three days of driving, we arrived at our condo in Durango, Colorado. The day we visited Arches, we left our condo at 6 a.m. in order to get there early. I was so ecstatic to go that I could barely sleep during the previous night. When we reached a certain point on our drive, I noticed an obvious change of scenery. The ground suddenly became vastly more barren, and the green hills changed to red and orange. Approximately three hours later, we finally saw the sign for Arches. First, we went to the visitor center and picked up a few souvenirs. We then grabbed our tickets and traversed the park’s roads in our car. From the roads, we could see graceful arches and enormous mountains. I could even see the white-capped Rocky Mountains behind the extensive red terrain of Utah. Since we had been driving for so long, we got out of the car to have a picnic. I was delighted to be able to eat outside without being attacked by hordes of mosquitoes like at home. My aunt remarked that she had never experienced a place that was as peaceful as this national park.
Following our picnic, we went hiking on some of the larger arches. It would have been an optimal day for hiking if not for the blustery cold wind. The wind may have been strong, but it could not compare to my desire to explore this otherworldly location. I can still remember when I climbed one arch and gazed upon the park. I was entranced by the sight so much that I tripped and fell. Luckily, I was not hurt, so we returned to our car and continued sightseeing. Along the ride, I saw a few more interesting formations. One arch was shaped like an elephant while another looked like there was a face engraved into a large rock. My favorite structure, the Balanced Rock, was a massive circular boulder on top of a thinner pillar. I was perplexed at how this configuration could defy gravity. On our way back, we saw a platform with several binoculars that were positioned toward the Delicate Arch. There was a giant drop off between the platform and the arch, so it was impossible to get any closer to it.
As we were about to leave, I noticed a sign for a path to the Delicate Arch. Although we knew it would be difficult to walk on a three-mile trail, my dad and I agreed that we could not waste this opportunity. We saw many other geological formations as we walked along the endless path. With every second we walked, my desire to reach the arch grew with more intensity. At some point, I heard a sound from a nearby bush. I thought that I saw a snake slithering under it. Even though I am usually scared of snakes, I continued on undeterred. Shortly after, we reached the arch. My excitement grew to new heights as we patiently waited for the other tourists to take their pictures. Once it was our turn to go take pictures, I rushed to stand underneath the Delicate Arch. I became overjoyed to be in the presence of a natural structure that has survived for millions of years. After we took our pictures, we slowly returned to our car still awe-inspired from what we witnessed. One of these pictures is even on my refrigerator today.
On the way back home, all I could think about was when we were going to return. To this day, Arches is the most magnificent place that I have ever seen. Some people would think that there is nothing special about looking at nature. However, I have never gotten the same feeling of amazement and astonishment that I received from visiting Arches. Although it took several days of driving for this visit, I am entirely grateful for having the opportunity. Perhaps in a few years, I will return to Arches and experience this feeling again.
Questions for Discussion
- What descriptions does the author use to show a change in scenery?
- How does the author describe the “interesting formations”?
- What order is the information in: chronological, spatial, or importance? How do you know? Provide evidence from the essay.
- What difference does the author notice between eating outside on this trip versus eating outside back home?
What is an exciting or interesting event you have experienced? Choose one moment from the event. What sights, sounds, smells, feelings, or tastes did you experience?
- Chronological order
- Spatial order
- Sensory details
Description is the process of relaying information to readers based on observations you have made with your five senses. This information can be organized in a variety of ways, but the three most common are chronological, spatial, and order of importance. Comparisons are often a great way to provide vivid details to readers. Using description is a strategy that will help you to engage your readers.
Now that you have learned about description, how do you think your writing will change? What are some descriptive techniques you would like to try?
Additional Chapter Sources
Amy Tan’s short essay “Fish Cheeks” first appeared in Seventeen magazine. ©1987. All rights reserved.
Student work, “My Spectacular Visit to the Arches,” reproduced anonymously with permission. All rights reserved.
Details an author uses to help readers relate to a story; these details are based on the five senses
Details an author includes that appeal to the five senses: taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight
Language that appeals to the physical senses
Organizing actions or events as they occurred in time
Organizing items by their physical location
A comparison of two different things using the words like or as
A comparison between two things that are not usually related
A comparison between two unrelated items based on their shared qualities
The literal, or dictionary, meaning of a word
Positive or negative association a word suggests in addition to its literal meaning; for example, blue is a color, but it also implies sadness
The author's feelings or opinions on a topic that are revealed through the author's word choice