A Closer Look at Descriptive Essay Writing

Updated: May 26, 2016

Descriptive essays serve a special function: they describe things/concepts and use language so rich and powerful that the reader wants to keep on reading the essay. This is attained by creating strong and vivid images rather than simply enumerating facts.

Descriptive essay is like a picture painted with wordsDescriptive essay is one of the major types of essays, requiring the student to provide a description of an object, person, place, device, - or just about any other type of thing that can be described verbally. Very often writers of descriptive essays are likened to artists who need to paint their pictures using only words – and that's exactly what is happening in descriptive writing.

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The two essay methods of narrative and descriptive writing take very different approaches. A narrative essay deals with facts, situations, and events, and aims to educate and inform using direct, clear language.By contrast, a description-based essay uses more sensory means. The writer describes the topic in terms of detailed descriptions and impressions, using simile and metaphor to strong effect. A descriptive essay works on a deeper emotional level, and if successful it describes objects and situations in such a way that the reader feels they almost have a shared experience of the essay's topic.It's an often-used but nonetheless true phrase that description-type essay writing relies on 'showing' and not 'telling'. Rather than simply relating a fact, a writer should show the reader how the topic is experienced, by using sensory details that draw the reader in, and using their sense of empathy to construct powerful images that they can relate directly to.


The purpose of descriptive writing is to involve the reader in a deeper way than the drier style of narrative writing. By painting more vivid pictures that appeal to all of the five senses it offers a more affecting view, communicated in a stronger way.

It's a powerful technique that requires some forethought to produce effective results. The precise approach you take, and the choice of similes and other figurative devices, will depend on what you're trying to convey. For example, you could simply describe a man as being old, but a more descriptive approach is to use words such as careworn, wise, dignified, and so on to put across a more nuanced impression than the bare facts that a narrative description would provide.


Although descriptive techniques can be used to improve the quality of almost any piece of writing, there is also a recognized structure to be followed when writing academic examples of descriptive essays. This consists of three major parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

- The Introduction

This should include a strong opening element to catch the reader's attention, possibly using a quote or a particularly powerful image. It then goes on to outline the object, event, or situation that will be described, and the reason that the specific subject of the essay has been selected as the topic.

- The Body

This usually consists of three paragraphs. In the first, the object of the essay itself is described in detail, using as many points as necessary to paint a rich portrait. In the second paragraph, context for the object is provided by describing the surroundings or background. Both these paragraphs should use strong imagery and imaginative comparisons throughout.

The third paragraph appeals more directly to the reader's senses and emotions, using the writer's skill to describe the subject in ways that bring it to life, and make the reader feel an empathetic connection.

- The Conclusion

This is in many ways a repetition and reinforcement of the introduction and body sections, outlining again why the object or situation was chosen for the essay, and how the attributes described in the body paragraphs came to have meaning to the author in relation to the overall idea being expressed.


What are peculiarities of a descriptive essay? It is deeper emotional level, sensory details, showing and not telling, descriptions and impressions, using simile and metaphor, feeling of shared experience. There are some connective words and phrases in descriptive essay: those, which introduce another viewpoint or concept, those showing the similarity between two points, those showing contrast and those that prove or reinforce a point. An essay consisting of repetitions of the same sentence structures quickly becomes monotonous and difficult to read, lessening the gut-level descriptive effect. Connecting words and phrases help with this problem, providing natural ways to link the parts of the essay, and giving it greater flow and power.

The possibilities for using connective words are almost unlimited, but a few examples of common linking situations and potential words to use in them include:

1)Introducing another viewpoint, statement, or concept: furthermore, what's more, additionally...

2)Showing the similarity between two points: likewise, similarly, equally...

3)Showing contrasts: however, nevertheless, on the other hand...

4)Proving or reinforcing a point: evidently, therefore, particularly...

While the value of connective words and phrases is clear, sentences also lose the reader's attention when they are too long. Even in descriptive essays brevity is a virtue. Connective words shouldn't be used excessively when succinct wording, shorter sentences, and a clearer separation of ideas could be more effective.

A final point to bear in mind is that the first draft of a descriptive essay is rarely the most successful attempt. This is even more true than in other types of writing. Because of this, revision is an essential part of the process. Reviewing the essay with a fresh mind will help to reveal the true clarity or otherwise of the similes, metaphors and other devices that have been used, and possible improvements will often make themselves surprisingly clear during the revision process.


1. Appeal to the reader's imagination and senses: describe how the thing looked, smelled, felt, sounded or even tasted, or even thought or imagined. Example:

We imagined they weren’t just mere dogs, but gigantic, slobbering wolves.

2. Use adjectives to describe things. They are probably the most important words that create a picture in your readers' mind. Use a synonyms thesaurus if you feel you're running short of descriptors. Example:

The warm summer sun and the clear blue summer sky are such a marvelous experience.

3. Use literary devices. Things like simile and metaphor are the most basic ones. They will definitely add weight to your essay. Examples:

His rough fingers that felt softer than silk when they brushed her skin (simile)

Aunt Kathie's long fingers were thin gnarled branches (metaphor)

4. Use inversion (or inverse word order) for emphasis. Example:

These were the neighborhood people

These are the basic tips and techniques for writing an impressive descriptive essay. Tools and literary devices should suffice for any of the college level writing. Remember to edit and proofread your essay once you are done with the draft of your paper. This will help to eliminate silly mistakes and is likely to prevent you from losing points.

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