Life is experiential. We use our senses to see, touch, smell and taste. We encounter our environment through our senses, and those encounters connect us to the world. A descriptive essay puts those encounters into words through vivid details.
Take a look at the following two sentences:
We walked through the field for the first time since the flood waters had receded. It was muddy, and the grass had grown very tall.
We’ve got basic details here: location (a field); a preceding event (a flood); a specific environment (muddy with tall grass). But the lack of more vivid imagery leaves much to be desired. When did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does this moment even matter in the grand scheme of things?
A descriptive essay expresses such a point more effectively than relying on five basic paragraphs that limit space for implication. Rather than stating an argument and proving it with three supporting details, the writer builds a scene to lead the reader to his desired conclusion.
Let’s go back to the above example for a minute. What if the writer added more vivid imagery?
Heavy steps propelled our ragtag group through the mud. Each footfall brought a hearty squelch, a rhythmic reminder of the rains that had kept us indoors for weeks. Tall grass tickled our fingertips, and before us lay a landscape once marked by suburban sprawl. There were no signs of that former glory now. Mother Nature had regained her territory. The floods had been her emissary.
These details elicit tone and set the mood. Vivid details invite the reader to step into the experience , building an environment more conducive to authentic expression of the author’s ideas.
Writing a descriptive essay, then, is as much about gathering details as it is about putting them on paper.
That’s why I encourage writers to start with a heavy dose of prewriting. Take a moment to consider which sensory details would best express your ideas. Chart or list those details, grouping them according to the senses.
Then, when you are ready to write:
- open your essay with a paragraph that sets the mood, sets the scene, or conveys the point (the why) through description.
- choose an appropriate organizational pattern for your middle paragraphs.
- Spatial (from top to bottom; left to right: good for describing a person or place)
- Chronological (according to the passage of time: good for describing a travel experience)
- Logical (according to the natural order of things: good for an academic discussion)
- close your essay by bringing the description to a natural close or offering a final thought
Here’s an excerpt from a descriptive essay I wrote. It’s a tribute to my maternal grandmother’s birthplace, a tiny coastal village in Eastern North Carolina.
We bring our children here now, plopping them down on the riverbank like fat infant buoys in giant hats. Like me They have summered here, hunting shark’s teeth, teasing blue crab, and burying jellyfish on the shore. They are out the door at daybreak to return unwillingly at dusk, coated in sand and kissed by the sun. I watch them play under the live oak, not untouched by the notion that the land underfoot was trampled by their great grandparents long ago.
This is the place where my mother and grandmother danced together on the beach. This is the place where my father’s early morning swims took him dang near out to the middle of the river. This is the place where my sister and I stood in the dark on the edge of a weathered pier, letting salt spray sting our midnight faces.
This is the place I long to be, always, at home with the ghosts of our past.
In the passage above, description builds my connection to this place and its memories from long ago. The details tell the story for me. Had I wanted to go further, I could have blended my description with other essay types:
- Narrative: telling the story of my family’s history, from 17th century landowners to 21st century educators
- Comparison: evaluating the differences between small town and big city life
- Cause and Effect: evaluating the impact of northern migration on an isolated, southern coastal town
- Definition: defining the meaning of family
Descriptive essays are an excellent venue for reaching your reader. Try using this format for your next writing adventure. You’ll be surprised how far it will take you.
Read more about the limitations of the five paragraph essay here, and be sure to sign up for my newsletter to get the free printable pack at the end of the week. For additional alternatives to the five paragraph essay, check out the rest of the days in this series:
Tuesday: The Narrative Essay
Wednesday: The Comparison Essay
Thursday: The Cause and Effect Essay
Friday: The Definition Essay
This post is part of the iHomeschool Network 5 Day Hopscotch
Information in this post was adapted from Fusion: Integrated Reading and Writing Book 2 (Kemper, Meyer, Van Rys, Sebranek; Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).