- Understand and utilize the descriptive language associated with the five senses.
- Conceptualize the difference between showing the reader and telling the reader.
- Identify the different types of descriptive essays: person, place, object, and event.
- Describe a person, a place, an object, or an event adequately and concisely.
- Master the organizational schemes associated with descriptive essays.
- Indicate in writing the significance of a person, place, object, and event.
A descriptive essay provides a vibrant experience for the reader through vivid language and descriptions of something. Unlike narrative essays, which must include personal thoughts, feelings, and growth, descriptive essays do not need to be personal in nature. Instead, descriptive essays must focus on vividly and objectively describing something to the reader. In order to provide this vivid detail and language, the writer must use language that appeals to the reader’s five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. To appeal to these senses, the writer must use descriptive language, usually in the form of adjectives, that describes the sensations felt by the senses. For instance, examine the differences between the descriptions below:
Sentence 1: The tree was tall and green.
Sentence 2: The soft and damp pink-flowers of the Dogwood tree smelled sweetly in the cool spring air as the wind whistled through its yellow-green leaves.
How do these descriptions compare? If these two sentences both describe the same tree, which sentence provides a better picture for the reader? Why?
While the first description does provide some detail (that the tree is both “tall” and “green”) it does not help the reader picture the tree. Saying that the tree is “tall” and “green” does not help separate the tree being described from any other tree. The second sentence, however, provides the reader with descriptive information that makes the tree unique. Unlike the writer of the first sentence who only vaguely described how the tree looked, the writer of the second sentence appeals to at least four of the reader’s five senses. This writer describes how the tree feels (“soft” and “damp”), how the tree smells (sweet), how the tree sounds (it whistles), and how the tree looks (pink and yellow-green). Through these descriptions the reader can see, hear, feel, and smell the tree while reading the sentence. Additionally, as with this case, in some instances not all of the senses will be applicable for the description. In this case, most descriptions of trees would not include a sense of how the tree tasted, especially when so many trees are inedible or poisonous!
Colors (green, blue, red)
Contrast (light vs. dark)
Depth (near vs. far)
Texture (rough, pebbly, smooth)
Shape (round, square, triangular)
Dimensions (height, width, length)
Providing good details in a descriptive essay also rests on the idea that a writer must show and not tell the reader. While good details in an essays are important, the most essential part of a descriptive essay is the reason for writing the essay. Since descriptive essays should explain to the reader the importance of what is being described, in addition to helping the reader picture it, the author must show the reader how and why something is significant rather than simply telling the reader. A good writer must help the reader picture what he or she is describing; however, a better writer shows the reader the purpose or reason for describing something. Consider the differences between the two sentences below:
Example 1: Ever since grade school, I have always been nervous during tests.
Example 2: Staring blankly at my exam, I tapped my pencil rapidly on the side of my desk and desperately tried to focus. Mustering up some courage, I wrote an answer to the second question, and just as quickly, I erased the answer frantically, not wanting to leave a trace of it on the blank, white paper. As the teacher announced that time was almost up, I remembered the taunt of my evil grade-school teacher, “You’ll never pass this test. Just give up already.” The memory of her words paralyzed my mind. Even more panic stricken than before, I stared wildly at my blank test, trying to remember what the teacher had said in class last week or what I had read in the textbook with no success.
While the first example does not explain how the narrator is nervous, it also fails to show why this nervousness is important. Ultimately, the first example tells and does not show the reader how the narrator is nervous or why this reaction is important. Meanwhile, the second example not only shows how the narrator expresses this nervousness (tapping the pencil on the desk, erasing answers, etc.), it begins to show why this is significant by relating it to earlier experiences in the narrator’s life. Through this connection, the writer is beginning to develop the description and the importance of the test-taking nervousness. Developing the second example into a full essay, the writer would go on to describe the experiences from grade school that led to this current bout of test-taking anxiety.
By showing and not telling the reader and by using descriptive language that appeals to the five senses, descriptive essays provide the reader with a detailed account and the significance of something. Thus, this something being described is the most important aspect of the descriptive essay. Generally, descriptive essays describe one of four some-things: a person, a place, an object, or an event.