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1.1: Descriptive Essays

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Learning Objectives

  • Understand and utilize the descriptive language associated with the five senses.
  • Conceptualize the difference between showing the reader and telling the reader.
  • Identify the different types of descriptive essays: person, place, object, and event.
  • Describe a person, a place, an object, or an event adequately and concisely.
  • Master the organizational schemes associated with descriptive essays.
  • Indicate in writing the significance of a person, place, object, and event.

Introduction

A descriptive essay provides a vibrant experience for the reader through vivid language and descriptions of something. Unlike narrative essays, which must include personal thoughts, feelings, and growth, descriptive essays do not need to be personal in nature. Instead, descriptive essays must focus on vividly and objectively describing something to the reader. In order to provide this vivid detail and language, the writer must use language that appeals to the reader’s five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. To appeal to these senses, the writer must use descriptive language, usually in the form of adjectives, that describes the sensations felt by the senses. For instance, examine the differences between the descriptions below:

Sentence 1: The tree was tall and green.

Sentence 2: The soft and damp pink-flowers of the Dogwood tree smelled sweetly in the cool spring air as the wind whistled through its yellow-green leaves.

How do these descriptions compare? If these two sentences both describe the same tree, which sentence provides a better picture for the reader? Why?

While the first description does provide some detail (that the tree is both “tall” and “green”) it does not help the reader picture the tree. Saying that the tree is “tall” and “green” does not help separate the tree being described from any other tree. The second sentence, however, provides the reader with descriptive information that makes the tree unique. Unlike the writer of the first sentence who only vaguely described how the tree looked, the writer of the second sentence appeals to at least four of the reader’s five senses. This writer describes how the tree feels (“soft” and ‘damp”), how the tree smells (sweet), how the tree sounds (it whistles), and how the tree looks (pink and yellow-green). Through these descriptions the reader can see, hear, feel, and smell the tree while reading the sentence. Additionally, as with this case, in some instances not all of the senses will be applicable for the description. In this case, most descriptions of trees would not include a sense of how the tree tasted, especially when so many trees are inedible or poisonous!

Below is a table of words associated with each of the five senses.
See Hear Smell Taste Feel

Colors (green, blue, red)

Contrast (light vs. dark)

Depth (near vs. far)

Texture (rough, pebbly, smooth)

Shape (round, square, triangular)

Dimensions (height, width, length)

Loud\Soft

Grating

Metallic

Atonal

Melodic

Euphonious

Discordant

Screeching

Gravelly

Harmonious

Sweet

Pungent

Acrid

Delicious

Disgusting

Appetizing

Fresh

Stale

Fruity

Tantalizing

Delicious

Sour

Sweet

Savory

Salty

Spoiled

Bitter

Earthy

Spicy

Bland

Soft\Hard

Creamy

Rubbery

Firm

Cool/Hot

Unctuous

Porous/Smooth

Knobby

Sticky

Dry/Moist

Providing good details in a descriptive essay also rests on the idea that a writer must show and not tell the reader. While good details in an essays are important, the most essential part of a descriptive essay is the reason for writing the essay. Since descriptive essays should explain to the reader the importance of what is being described, in addition to helping the reader picture it, the author must show the reader how and why something is significant rather than simply telling the reader. A good writer must help the reader picture what he or she is describing; however, a better writer shows the reader the purpose or reason for describing something. Consider the differences between the two sentences below:

Example 1: Ever since grade school, I have always been nervous during tests.

Example 2: Staring blankly at my exam, I tapped my pencil rapidly on the side of my desk and desperately tried to focus. Mustering up some courage, I wrote an answer to the second question, and just as quickly, I erased the answer frantically, not wanting to leave a trace of it on the blank, white paper. As the teacher announced that time was almost up, I remembered the taunt of my evil grade-school teacher, “You’ll never pass this test. Just give up already.” The memory of her words paralyzed my mind. Even more panic stricken than before, I stared wildly at my blank test, trying to remember what the teacher had said in class last week or what I had read in the textbook with no success.

While the first example does not explain how the narrator is nervous, it also fails to show why this nervousness is important. Ultimately, the first example tells and does not show the reader how the narrator is nervous or why this reaction is important. Meanwhile, the second example not only shows how the narrator expresses this nervousness (tapping the pencil on the desk, erasing answers, etc.), it begins to show why this is significant by relating it to earlier experiences in the narrator’s life. Through this connection, the writer is beginning to develop the description and the importance of the test-taking nervousness. Developing the second example into a full essay, the writer would go on to describe the experiences from grade school that led to this current bout of test-taking anxiety.

By showing and not telling the reader and by using descriptive language that appeals to the five senses, descriptive essays provide the reader with a detailed account and the significance of something. Thus, this something being described is the most important aspect of the descriptive essay. Generally, descriptive essays describe one of four some-things: a person, a place, an object, or an event.

Person

Like any other descriptive essay, the most important aspect of a person essay is the reason for writing it. Have you ever read a book or article for school wondering what the point is? Perhaps, even feeling disinterested because of what you felt was a lack of point or reason for reading or even writing the book, poem, article, etc.? Essentially, the same can be true for your own essays if you do not write with a purpose. In choosing the person you want to write about, you have a reason for the choice you have made. It is your job as the writer to show the reader your point. Why have you chosen this person instead of another? What makes them interesting? You must draw your readers into your essays just as every other author draws their readers into their work, even if your only audience is your teacher. Remember, teachers do not like reading pointless essays any more than you do!

Thus, whenever writing a descriptive essay about a person, you must ask yourself: Why did I choose this person? What makes this person special? Is it a memory? Which of this person’s characteristics has inspired me to write about him or her? In answering these questions, you not only find the reason or purpose for writing your essay, but you also inadvertently discover how to format your essay as well. Generally, essays can be formatted in a number of different ways. The formatting of an essay rests almost entirely on what you are trying to do or to say within your paper. For instance, let us consider the answer to some of the questions provided above.

Imagine that you have decided to write your descriptive essay about your aunt because you spent your summers with her when you were younger. Let’s say that during one of your visits to her house, she taught you how to swim in the lake behind her house, and this is one of the fondest memories from your childhood. In this case, your descriptive essay would be a chronological account of this experience. You would organize your essay around the experience by having an introduction and conclusion that indicate the topic and purpose of your essay while detailing the event in the body of the essay. For instance, in a descriptive essay about your aunt, the introduction and conclusion would indicated that this memory was the highlight of your childhood while the body paragraphs would describe the event in chronological order. Since this is a descriptive essay about a person and not an event, you must be sure to center your discussion of the event on the person involved, the person who made the event special.

However, you could also write a descriptive essay about your aunt that details some of your favorite characteristics about her. Perhaps you want your essay to describe a few reasons why your aunt is your favorite relative. In this essay, you would focus on the several characteristics that show why your aunt is so special. To do so, you may choose to explain briefly an event that supports one characteristic. For instance, if you want show that your aunt is spontaneous and that this is one of your favorite things about her, you may choose to describe a day when she woke you up early to take you on an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment trip to the beach. Through describing this event in one of your body paragraphs, you help support your claim that your aunt is spontaneous.

Consider the chart below and how each essay would be organized.
Organization Type Characteristics Event
Criteria
  1. Spontaneous
  2. Fun Loving
  3. Easy Going
The summer your aunt taught you to swim is one of your fondest childhood memories.
Explanation You would organize your paper around the main reasons why your aunt is your favorite relative with each of these characteristics serving as a body paragraph. You would organize your paper around this event and how it has made your aunt more important to you.

Review Questions

  1. Write a person descriptive essay about a person in your family following one of the organizational schemes listed above.
  2. Write a person descriptive essay about an important person in history using the event organization. Instead of indicating how the person is important to you, indicate how the person is important or significant within history.

Place

Much like a person descriptive essay, the most important aspect of a descriptive essay about a place is your reason for writing it. Consider all of the places you have been to in your life -- not only the places you have visited on vacation but also those that you visit in everyday life. Every day, or at least during the school week, how many different places do you go to? Most likely, you would start your day at home before leaving for school. Do you stop to get breakfast or coffee along the way or do you stop and pick up a friend? While you would spend the majority of your day at school, do you leave campus to get lunch? How about after school, do you go straight home or do you go to a friend’s house or to a local hang out? Considering all the places you visit in one day, which would you pick to write about and why? These are the most important questions to answer when writing your place descriptive essay, and answering them will help you decide the organization of your paper.

The organization of a descriptive essay about a place is much like the organization of a descriptive essay about a person. Thus, there are two main organizational schemes that you can choose from when composing a descriptive essay about a place: one that focuses on certain characteristics of the place or one that focuses on a specific event (or set of events) related to a place. For instance, for the first type of organization, you would focus on the reasons, or characteristics, that indicate why you enjoy, or dislike, a place. For the second type, you would focus on the events that explain why this place is important to you. For example, if you were writing a descriptive place essay about Disneyland, these are the two ways in which you could organize your paper.

Below is a table detailing the two types of organizational schemes.
Organization Type Characteristics Event
Criteria
  1. Rides
  2. Food
  3. Atmosphere
The last family vacation before your older sibling went to college and moved out of the house
Explanation You would organize your paper around the main reasons why you enjoy Disneyland with each of these characteristics serving as a body paragraph. You would organize your paper around this event and how it has made Disneyland more important to you.

While it may not matter which type or organization you choose, you must always make the place the focus of your paper. Thus, be sure the events are characteristics you describe in the essay do not outshine the importance of the place they are describing. For instance, following the example above, when discussing the rides at Disneyland, do not focus too much on rides at other theme parks. While comparing the rides at Disneyland to rides at other theme park rides does stress how much better they are, do not let the rides at other amusement parks overshadow the rides at Disneyland. Additionally, remember to stress why the place being described is important to you regardless of the organizational scheme you choose.

Review Questions

  1. Write a descriptive essay about your home town. Describe the town and indicate why it is important either to you or to society as a whole.
  2. Write a descriptive essay about one of the original towns settled in New England by the early colonists (i.e. Massachusetts Bay Colony). Describe the location and environment of the town, paying close attention to how the location of the colony was integral to the colonists’ survival.

Object

By now, you may have noticed a pattern when it comes to organizing a descriptive essay. As you remember, you organize a descriptive essay about a person or place based either upon the characteristics associated with the person/place or an event associated with the person/place, and an object descriptive essay is no exception to this organizational scheme. When writing a descriptive essay about an object, you must first decide why you have chosen this specific object to write about. In answering this question, you will know how to organize your paper. If you decide that an object is important to you because of the characteristics the object possesses, then you would organize the body of your paper around these characteristics or reason. However, if an object is important to you because it was part of a significant event in your life, then you would produce body paragraphs that explain the event in chronological order.

For instance, image you wanted to write a descriptive essay about a tree at a local park. Consider the two ways of organizing this essay described in the table below.

Organization Type Characteristics Event
Criteria
  1. Good for climbing
  2. Tire swing
  3. Displays the change in seasons
You received your first kiss from your first crush under this tree
Explanation You would organize your paper around the main reasons why this is your favorite tree with each of these characteristics serving as a body paragraph. You would organize your paper around this event and how it has made this tree more important to you.

Although the organizational scheme you choose rests solely on the content you intend to include, the object must be the focus of either paper. Make sure the characteristics of an object or the retelling of an event does not overshadow the impact of the object being described. For example, when describing the event of your first kiss, you would need to make sure that you did not spend too much of your paper focusing on your first crush. Additionally, when writing about an event connected to the object, be sure to connect the event to the significance of the object so that the event itself does not outshine the object being described. In focusing on not only the organization of the essay but also the significance of the object, the object descriptive essay that you compose will stress both the description and importance of the object being described.

Review Questions

  1. Write a descriptive essay about a gift you received on your birthday. Remember you can arrange your essay according to the characteristics of the object or by detailing the event at which you received it.
  2. Write a descriptive essay about one of the state birds. Be sure to indicate why the bird is important to the state it represents.

Event

Although the three previous types of descriptive essays follow the same two organizational schemes, event descriptive essays differ slightly in the way in which they are organized. While other descriptive essays either describe the person, place, or object in question or detail the event connected to it, event descriptive essays chronologically describe an event from the past or from the future. Thus, descriptive essays that focus on an event can either detail a memory that is significant or your hopes about an upcoming event. For instance, your event descriptive essay about a past event would describe a memory that is in some way important to you, be it positively or negatively; however, your event descriptive essay about a future event would describe something to occur in the future that you are hopeful of or that you dread.

While the other descriptive essays also employ organizational schemes that outline events connected to a person, place, or object, a descriptive essay about an event must focus on the event itself. For example, you could write a descriptive essay detailing the event of your graduation from high school that could be based on a person, place, object, or event. If you wanted to stress a person through this event, you could write an essay that details how your graduation is important because it was the first time you say your grandparents in ten years. If you wanted to stress a place through this event, you could write an essay that details how important the stadium you graduated in is to you. If you wanted to stress an object through the event, you could write an essay that describes how important your diploma is to you. However, if you wanted to stress the importance of the graduation, or the event itself, you could write an essay that describes how all the things listed above, your grandparents, the location, and your diploma, all make the event significant to you.

Below is a table describing the significance of each essay type.
Essay Type Person/People Place Object Event
Significance of Essay Your grandparents are important to you because they came to your graduation. The central park in your home town is important to you because you graduated there. Your diploma is important to you because it symbolizes you maturing into an adult. Your graduation itself is important because it was
  • the first time you saw your grandparents in ten years
  • at the central park in your home town
  • when you received your diploma

Hence, while in the other descriptive essays you must never let the event overshadow the significance of the person, place, or object being described, in an event descriptive essay you should focus on how the people, place, and objects surrounding the event make it important. In this way, an event descriptive essay is a lot like the characteristics person, place, and object essays. Thus, think of the objects, people, and place of an event as the characteristics that make the event important to you whenever constructing an event descriptive essay.

Review Questions

  1. Write a descriptive essay about a school event that you attended or that you plan on attending in the future. Remember to include the people, location, or objects that made, or will make, the event significant.
  2. Write a descriptive essay about the 2008 Presidential Election, focusing on why this election was significant in the United States.

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Feb 23, 2012

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Aug 28, 2014
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