I. What is a Descriptive Essay?
A descriptive essay is an essay that describes something – an object or person, an event or place, an experience or emotion, or an idea. The goal of this kind of essay is to provide readers with enough detailed descriptions for them to be able to picture or imagine the chosen topic.
II. Examples of Descriptive Essays
The list of possible topics is nearly endless. The best topics are those that the author knows well and can clearly imagine. A writer should also consider what may be interesting to their audience.
- The first day of spring (an experience)
- Your best friend (a person)
- Honesty or trust (ideas)
- Courage/bravery (idea)
- Nervousness/fear (emotions)
- Happiness/fun of kite flying (emotion)
- A museum sculpture (an object)
- A ride on the subway (an event)
- Your bedroom (place)
- A leaf, seashell, or other small object
III. Types of Descriptive Essays with Topics
Even though there are countless topics for a descriptive essay, a writer only has to use two types of description. The first type of description is used for concrete topics, and the second is used when the essay describes an abstract topic.
A topic about something concrete is something that you can see, touch or taste, hear, or smell – in other words, something concrete can be described with your senses.
|Concrete topic||Descriptions using the senses|
|Pizza||Smell the aroma; see the toppings; feel the heat and taste the sauce; hear the crunch of the crust|
|A day at the park||Hear the people and the birds; smell the earth; feel the shade of a tree or the heat of the sun|
|A coin||See its size; feel its weight and the engraving; hear it clink on the floor|
Describing an abstract topic is more challenging. Ideas and emotions are abstract topics – they cannot be touched. Therefore, it is difficult to describe them with our senses. In order to write a descriptive essay of this type, writers often turn to context – experiences or situations – that point the reader towards understanding the topic.
|Abstract topic||Context (experiences or situations)|
|Honesty||Return a lost wallet; don’t cheat on a test; saying the truth when it is difficult|
|Poverty||Not enough food; no jobs; emotional stress|
|Fun||Choosing an activity; smiling; everyone getting along; energizing|
|Friendship||Doing similar activities; trust; helping one another; sharing hopes and fears|
IV. Parts of a descriptive essay with examples
a. Clear topic
A descriptive essay must focus clearly on the topic. The topic should be as specific as you can make it. A vague topic makes it difficult to focus on. In addition, if the description includes a time, place, or point-of-view, the writer must make that clear.
|Vague Topic vs. Clearly focused topic|
|A tree||The willow tree that I used to play in when I was little|
|The subway||Riding on the subway during rush hour|
|Winter||The day after a big snowfall when school is cancelled|
b. Sensory description or context
Depending on whether the topic is concrete or abstract, a large part of a descriptive essay will be sensory description or context. This part of the essay has enough details and information for readers to clearly imagine whatever is being described (see part III for examples).
c. Conclusion with purpose
A strong descriptive essay leaves the reader with a strong image or impression of the topic. A purposeful conclusion helps the reader see the value or importance of the topic. In other words, it states the purpose or point of the essay.
|The willow tree that I used to play in when I was little||Since that time, I have always loved shady trees|
|Riding on the subway during rush hour||What a relief to be away from the crowd and noise!|
|The day after a big snowfall when school is cancelled||So next time you’re driving after a snowfall, remember to drive safely, because kids are probably out playing.|
V. How to write a descriptive essay
Remember these writing goals when writing a descriptive essay.
a. Use your senses
Think about all five of your senses (sight, sound, hearing, touch, taste) when you write about your topic. Let your readers ‘see’ your topic with two or three senses.
I spent yesterday in the park. I saw many trees, and a group of small children playing. One boy wore a red shirt. I also saw people sitting in the shade.
I spent yesterday in the park. I saw many trees, and I heard the shouts of children playing a game. The sun was burning brightly, and I ended up in the shade to cool off.
b. Consider your point of view
Many descriptive essays use a straightforward look at their topic, but sometimes a creative point of view lets your readers see the topic in a new light. For instance, you can describe a tree from the point of view of a bird, or items in your bedroom described by a person from the past. Writing a descriptive essay with a creative point of view can be very effective, but be aware of what your audience wants!
I walked along a dirt path, lined by trees on each side. Some people here were riding their bikes, and the dust floated in the air.
I walked along a dirt path, lined by trees on each side. A bird chirped above me, and I wondered what it saw from up in its nest. The dirt path cut straight through his neighborhood, and I imagined the chirping bird as a grumpy man yelling at us. The zooming bicycles must seem like strange animals to the bird.
c. Consider figurative language
The trees grew close together, and their branches touched above the winding dirt path.
All along the path, the trees grew close together, and their branches touched like old friends holding hands.
d. Don’t slip into narrative
A descriptive essay should ‘paint a picture’ — not show a movie. You won’t see dialogue, a chain of events, or characters (unless a character is the topic) in a descriptive essay. Keep your essay focused on a single, steady image.
The walk around the park felt nice, but I was hungry, so I walked towards the pond where I saw a hotdog stand. There were a bunch of kids there, and I had to wait in line. I was sweating by the time I got my hotdog, and then I had to find somewhere to sit.
On the other side of the wooded path sits a large pond with a lawn beside it. Ducks quack loudly while kids chase each other on the flat green lawn. On the far side of the grass I see the glint of sunlight of the metal cart of a hotdog stand.
e. Be clear with your word-choice
A successful narrative essay requires careful word choice. Take a close look at the adjectives (describing words) you use. See if you can find a more specific or descriptive word. Also make sure you use clear, active verbs (action words).
The ducks walked around eating bread crumbs that old ladies gave them. The pond where they swam was big and had tall grass growing near it.
The ducks waddled around eating bread crumbs that two grey-haired ladies tossed towards them. The large pond nearby was surrounded by thick grass as tall as a child.
f. Search for unique details
Find small, interesting details that others may not see. Think about focusing your description in a way that will give your audience a new view on something they might’ve already seen.
I watched the ducks for a while. Most of them were light brown, with matching orange feet and beaks. A few ducks were darker brown, and had vibrant green head feathers.
I watched the ducks for a while. They scrambled after the bread on their awkward, webbed feet. The nostrils on their bills were shaped like question marks. When they gobbled the bread I saw a ridges of bumps, like teeth, lining their bills.