Description is the tool writers use to make things come alive for their readers, to make sure that their audience is fully immersed in the words on the page. Every time you tell a story to someone, or tell someone about something, you use description even if you don’t know it. Description can be as basic as, “I have a blue car” or “That is such a cute baby” or as detailed as “ The flowers soak up the golden sun’s rays and begin to show their vibrant colors.” Descriptive words are used to provide more information and provide added insight. In fact, description is the one tool that most allows writers (and speakers) to show instead of just tell, which enables us to exemplify our points to our readers.
There are two basic types of description, objective and subjective. Objective description is demonstrated in the first two examples above; it gives a factual account of the subject. Subjective description offers a more personal view of the details by choosing specific words and phrases such as vibrant to describe colors in the above example. Vibrant doesn’t just offer detail about the colors, it also offers an opinion or a value judgment within the description. Most descriptions offer a mix of the two to convey the details while also offering the audience an idea of the emotional context of the subject being described.
All expressive description, however, uses sensory details as its basis. These are details that appeal to the five senses —sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Of course, different subjects lead themselves to an emphasis on different sensory details and not all subjects require a use of all five senses. We all recognize the importance of sight as a descriptive tool, but we don’t always realize how important other sensory details can also be. Consider, though, how often you will smell a certain smell and instantly think of something or someone specific. You might smell freshly baked bread and think of your grandma’s kitchen, or popcorn and think of a movie theater. Hearing a certain phrase might make you think of an old friend or acquaintance. You might associate a certain type of material with a blanket you had as a child. When you take a bite of pepperoni pizza you might be reminded of the slumber parties of your youth. Sensory details really can play an important part in making a description come alive.
Choose an everyday object. Write a description of that object that appeals to all five senses in a way that does not state the object.
On a separate sheet of paper, describe the following five items in a short paragraph. Use at least three of the five senses for each description.
Using Concrete Description
Try to use specific, concrete descriptions. For example, a writer may write beautiful to describe a tree. However, beautiful is too vague. Instead, a concrete adjective or modifier would be stronger and gives greater impact. The reader needs details for a picture to form in their heads, abstract concepts like beautiful lack a real-world analog.
Here’s a reworked description of the tree: “the sun’s rays glistened off the rain-slick leaves, even as the afternoon sky dipped towards evening.” The beautiful qualities of the tree are “shown” through concrete details instead of merely told through abstraction. This gives the reader the illusion of immediate experience, as opposed to the dictionary variety.
Simile and Metaphors
Another way to add descriptive language is to use similes and metaphors, creating a picture in readers’ heads by comparing two objects to each other. Similes and metaphors help to make connections between two ideas, concepts, or objects that clarify or give new meaning.
A simile is a comparison using the words like or as. It usually compares two dissimilar objects. For example, the bread was as dry as a bone. The comparison links a piece of bread that has become hard and white to a bone that is also hard and white. Bones often dry out, and so does bread. These similar characteristics are what make the simile effective.
A metaphor states that one thing is something else. It is a comparison, but it does NOT use like or as to make the comparison. For example, my grandmother is an open book. The comparison implies that the my grandmother is full of information that she willingly shares with others.
To make a simile or metaphor, identify an object like a sunset, tree, or river, or a concept like love, peace, or anger. Then think of another object that has some similar traits. Decide whether the words “like” or “as” will help make the connection more understandable. A good simile or metaphor will make the reader look at both objects in a new perspective.
By adding similes and metaphors to a description paper, the writer can appeal to the readers’ imagination and make the writing more interesting to read. Similes and metaphors add spark to descriptions. However, many cliches come in the form of similes and metaphors, so strive to create comparisons that are specific to your particular subject.
The Structure of a Description Essay
Description essays typically describe a person, a place, or an object using sensory details. The structure of a descriptive essay is more flexible than in some of the other rhetorical modes. The introduction of a description essay should set the tone and the point of the essay. The thesis should convey the writer’s overall impression of the person, place, or object described in the body paragraphs.
The organization of the essay may best follow spatial order, an arrangement of ideas according to physical characteristics or appearance. Depending on what the writer describes, the organization could move from top to bottom, left to right, near to far, warm to cold, frightening to inviting, and so on.
For example, if the subject were a client’s kitchen in the midst of renovation, you might start at one side of the room and move slowly across to the other end, describing appliances, cabinetry, and so on. Or, you might choose to start with older remnants of the kitchen and progress to the new installations. Maybe start with the floor and move up toward the ceiling.
On a separate sheet of paper, choose an organizing strategy and then execute it in a short paragraph for three of the following six items:
- Bus stop
- Your office
- Your car
- A coffee shop
- Lobby of a movie theater
- Mystery Option. Choose an object to describe but do not indicate it. Describe it so that you preserve the mystery.
Writing a Description
In order to write descriptively, you must take a topic and decide how to make that topic vivid for your audience. If the topic of the piece is merely to describe a particular place, you must decide what elements of that place, when described in text, will become most vivid for your audience. The first step in any descriptive writing is to choose a topic and begin to work out athesis statement. You may choose to describe a particular place.
Sample Thesis Statement
Although Minnesota may seem drab and cold to outsiders, natives of the state find it a wonderful place to live.
We can see in this thesis statement that the writer will attempt to show the aspects of Minnesota that make it a great place to live. After detailing a thesis statement, you should come up with a list of sensory words that provide vivid detail and support the thesis. You may start by thinking about the five senses. How does your particular place look, smell, feel, taste, and sound like? How can you best describe these senses so the reader feels what you feel? By organizing the elements of descriptive language into easier to handle sections, like the five senses, you are able to more specifically engage in what elements of the description are most useful.
Order of Presentation
The writer in this case could choose to present the positive aspects of Minnesota in terms of the seasons and weather changes. The details could be presented linearly, starting with spring and going through the winter, highlighting the aspects of each season that most closely support the thesis, that Minnesota is a great place to live.
Prior to starting the essay, give some thought to the audience of your piece. Who is going to read the essay, and what effect would you like it to have upon the readers? An awareness of audience is important in choosing the level of formality you take with your writing. Knowing your audience will also help you distinguish which details to include throughout your essay. Assume that your audience knows very little or nothing about your subject matter, and include details that may seem obvious to you.
Example Audience: In this particular essay, the writer wants to show an outsider to the state why Minnesota natives are so happy to live there. The essay should help break down stereotypes for those outsiders about Minnesota’s cold weather and apparent drabness. Because the essay is designed for those who do not live in Minnesota, and maybe have never been there, it is important to include details about the state that may seem obvious to a native.
With the preparatory work complete, it is time now to begin writing your essay. Use your thesis statement to begin to construct an introductory paragraph. The introduction should set up the basis for your essay, and the thesis statement should state its purpose.
Many who have not traveled to the state of Minnesota only hear of its cold weather and boring reputation. They are sure missing out on the great opportunities that Minnesota affords. Each season offers different senses that native Minnesotans and tourists know and love. Although Minnesota may seem drab and cold to outsiders, natives of the state find it a wonderful place to live.
With the introduction complete, it is time to start constructing the body paragraphs of your essay. Each body paragraph should have a central theme in itself, and that theme should be represented in a topic sentence. Consequently, each sentence of the paragraph should relate to and support the topic sentence. The body paragraphs are where the majority of the details should be given. When writing the first draft of your descriptive essay, include as many details as is reasonably possible. You can always eliminate the ones that do not serve the essay as well when you are revising your draft. In the case of the Minnesota nature essay, we have decided to set up the body paragraphs in terms of season, starting with spring.
Example Body Paragraph
Spring in Minnesota brings new life to the state after the long winter season. The rain washes the landscape clean, leaving its fresh aroma for all to enjoy. The flowers soak up the golden sun’s rays and begin to show their vibrant colors. The first birds can be seen and heard throughout the woods and fields, telling their stories in beautiful songs. The lakes begin to show their glossy finish as the ice melts away slowly under the heat of the season.
With the body paragraphs complete, it is time to bring the essay to a close with the conclusion. The conclusion should draw a conclusion based on what has been presented throughout the body of the essay. It needs to return to the thesis, but not in an overt way. The conclusion should give the reader a final sense of what the essay was meant to portray. Remember that there should not be any new material introduced in the conclusion, and the way it is worded should give the reader a sense of finality.
The variety of activities and distinct seasons found in Minnesota reveal diverse beauty of this state. As one considers the benefits of each season, it becomes clearer why so many native Minnesotans are content with their home state. Minnesota is truly a wonderful place to live.
With the essay complete, it is time to reread and revise your essay (also see revision sections of this textbook). Read your first draft and pinpoint all of the descriptor words you used. If possible, go back and add more after the ones you already used in the essay. If you can, read your essay aloud to a friend and have him/her tell you what images are vivid and what images need more development. Rework any images that are cloudy with more descriptions. Also, check to see if your descriptions have made use of all of the five senses: sound, smell, texture, sight, and taste. Repeat these steps as many times as necessary until you are happy with your product.
- Description essays should describe something vividly to the reader using strong sensory details.
- Sensory details appeal to the five human senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
- A description essay should start with the writer’s main impression of a person, a place, or an object.
Susan Berne visits New York and describes her impressions in Where Nothing Says Everything ( https://tinyurl.com/yboc9m9s), also called Ground Zero. Another link to the story is here (https://tinyurl.com/y99fchlw).
Heather Rogers provides a detailed description (book excerpt) of a landfill that challenges the reader to consider his or her own consumption and waste in The Hidden Life of Garbage (tinyurl.com/y7sb348m).
Sample Descriptive Essay:America's Pastime
As the sun hits my face and I breathe in the fresh air, I temporarily forget that I am at a sporting event. But, when I open my eyes and look around, I am reminded of all things American. From the national anthem to the international players on the field, all the sights and sounds of a baseball game come together like a slice of Americana pie.
First, the entrance turnstiles click and clank, and then a hallway of noise bombards me. All the fans’ voices coalesce in a chorus of sound, rising to a humming clamor. The occasional, “Programs, get your programs, here!” jumps out through the hum to get my attention. I navigate my way through the crowded walkways of the stadium, moving to the right of some people, and to the left of others, I eventually find the section number where my seat is located. As I approach my seat I hear the announcer’s voice echo around the ball park, “Attention fans. In honor of our country, please remove your caps for the singing of the national anthem.” His deep voice echoes around each angle of the park, and every word is heard again and again. The crowd sings and hums “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I feel a surprising amount of national pride through the voices. I take my seat as the umpire shouts, “Play ball!” and the game begins.
In the fifth inning of the game, I decide to find a concessions stand. Few tastes are as American as hot dogs and soda pop, and they cannot be missed at a ball game. The smell of hot dogs carries through the park, down every aisle, and inside every concourse. They are always as unhealthy as possible, dripping in grease, while the buns are soft and always too small for the dog. The best way to wash down the Ball Park Frank is with a large soda pop, so I order both. Doing my best to balance the cold pop in one hand and the wrapped-up dog in the other, I find the nearest condiments stand to load up my hot dog. A dollop of bright green relish and chopped onions, along with two squirts of the ketchup and mustard complete the dog. As I continue the balancing act between the loaded hot dog and pop back to my seat, a cheering fan bumps into my pop hand. The pop splashes out of the cup and all over my shirt, leaving me drenched. I make direct eye contact with the man who bumped into me. He looks me in the eye, looks at my shirt, and tells me how sorry he is. I just shake my head and keep walking. “It’s all just part of the experience,” I tell myself.
Before I am able to get back to my seat, I hear the crack of a bat, followed by an uproar from the crowd. Everyone is standing, clapping, and cheering. I missed a home run. I find my aisle and ask everyone to excuse me as I slip past them to my seat. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry,” is all I can say as I inch past each fan. Halfway to my seat I can hear discarded peanut shells crunch beneath my feet, and each step is marked with a pronounced crunch.
When I finally get to my seat I realize it is the start of the seventh inning stretch. I quickly eat my hot dog and wash it down with what is left of my soda pop. The organ starts playing and everyone begins to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” While singing the song, putting my arms around friends and family with me, I watch all the players taking the field. It is wonderful to see the overwhelming number of players on one team from around the world: Japan, the Dominican Republic, the United States, Canada, and Venezuela. I cannot help but feel a bit of national pride at this realization. Seeing the international representation on the field reminds me of the ways that Americans, though from many different backgrounds and places, still come together under common ideals. For these reasons and for the whole experience in general, going to a Major League Baseball game is the perfect way to glimpse a slice of Americana.