The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2013-03-10 01:34:44
What is a descriptive essay?
The descriptive essay is a genre of essay that asks the student to describe something—object, person, place, experience, emotion, situation, etc. This genre encourages the student’s ability to create a written account of a particular experience. What is more, this genre allows for a great deal of artistic freedom (the goal of which is to paint an image that is vivid and moving in the mind of the reader).
One might benefit from keeping in mind this simple maxim: If the reader is unable to clearly form an impression of the thing that you are describing, try, try again!
Here are some guidelines for writing a descriptive essay.
If your instructor asks you to describe your favorite food, make sure that you jot down some ideas before you begin describing it. For instance, if you choose pizza, you might start by writing down a few words: sauce, cheese, crust, pepperoni, sausage, spices, hot, melted, etc. Once you have written down some words, you can begin by compiling descriptive lists for each one.
- Use clear and concise language.
This means that words are chosen carefully, particularly for their relevancy in relation to that which you are intending to describe.
Why use horse when you can choose stallion? Why not use tempestuous instead of violent? Or why not miserly in place of cheap? Such choices form a firmer image in the mind of the reader and often times offer nuanced meanings that serve better one’s purpose.
Remember, if you are describing something, you need to be appealing to the senses of the reader. Explain how the thing smelled, felt, sounded, tasted, or looked. Embellish the moment with senses.
If you can describe emotions or feelings related to your topic, you will connect with the reader on a deeper level. Many have felt crushing loss in their lives, or ecstatic joy, or mild complacency. Tap into this emotional reservoir in order to achieve your full descriptive potential.
- Leave the reader with a clear impression.
One of your goals is to evoke a strong sense of familiarity and appreciation in the reader. If your reader can walk away from the essay craving the very pizza you just described, you are on your way to writing effective descriptive essays.
It is easy to fall into an incoherent rambling of emotions and senses when writing a descriptive essay. However, you must strive to present an organized and logical description if the reader is to come away from the essay with a cogent sense of what it is you are attempting to describe.
To write a narrative essay, you’ll need to tell a story (usually about something that happened to you) in such a way that he audience learns a lesson or gains insight.
To write a descriptive essay, you’ll need to describe a person, object, or event so vividly that the reader feels like he/she could reach out and touch it.
Tips for writing effective narrative and descriptive essays:
- Tell a story about a moment or event that means a lot to you--it will make it easier for you to tell the story in an interesting way!
- Get right to the action! Avoid long introductions and lengthy descriptions--especially at the beginning of your narrative.
- Make sure your story has a point! Describe what you learned from this experience.
- Use all five of your senses to describe the setting, characters, and the plot of your story. Don't be afraid to tell the story in your own voice. Nobody wants to read a story that sounds like a textbook!
How to Write Vivid Descriptions
Having trouble describing a person, object, or event for your narrative or descriptive essay? Try filling out this chart:
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What might you touch or feel?
Remember: Avoid simply telling us what something looks like--tell us how it tastes, smells, sounds, or feels!
- Virginia rain smells different from a California drizzle.
- A mountain breeze feels different from a sea breeze.
- We hear different things in one spot, depending on the time of day.
- You can “taste” things you’ve never eaten: how would sunscreen taste?
Using Concrete Details for Narratives
Effective narrative essays allow readers to visualize everything that's happening, in their minds. One way to make sure that this occurs is to use concrete, rather than abstract, details.
…makes the story or image seem clearer and more real to us.
...makes the story or image difficult to visualize.
…gives us information that we can easily grasp and perhaps empathize with.
…leaves your reader feeling empty, disconnected, and possibly confused.
The word “abstract” might remind you of modern art. An abstract painting, for example, does not normally contain recognizable objects. In other words, we can't look at the painting and immediately say "that's a house" or "that's a bowl of fruit." To the untrained eye, abstract art looks a bit like a child's finger-painting--just brightly colored splotches on a canvas.
Avoid abstract language—it won’t help the reader understand what you're trying to say!
Abstract: It was a nice day.
Concrete: The sun was shining and a slight breeze blew across my face.
Abstract: I liked writing poems, not essays.
Concrete: I liked writing short, rhythmic poems and hated rambling on about my thoughts in those four-page essays.
Abstract: Mr. Smith was a great teacher.
Concrete: Mr. Smith really knew how to help us turn our thoughts into good stories and essays.