Structuring a Descriptive Essay

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Structuring a Descriptive Essay

The purpose of a descriptive essay is to describe a person, place, or thing in such vivid detail that the reader can easily form a precise mental picture of what is being written about. The author may accomplish this by using imaginative language, interesting comparisons, and images that appeal to the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

Often, a descriptive essay will focus on portraying one of the following:

  • a person

  • a place

  • a memory

  • an experience

  • an object

Since the purpose of the essay is to paint a mental image of a specific subject, it helps to make a list of all the things you associate with your topic.

Here are the basic steps to writing an effective descriptive essay:

1. Select a subject

A descriptive essay paints a picture for the reader, using descriptive devices and the senses. Create a thesis statement that informs the reader who or what you are describing. Examples: “The wooden roller coaster in Coney Island is a work of art.” “My bedroom is an ocean sanctuary.”

2. Brainstorm ideas

Once a topic is chosen, students should spend time thinking about the qualities they want to describe. Brainstorm about all the details associated with the topic. Even when not writing about a place, reflect on the surroundings. Where is the object located? Where does the person live? Consider not just physical characteristics, but also what memories, feelings, and ideas the subject evokes. Memory and emotion play an important role in conveying the subject’s significance. Plan the focus of each paragraph and create an outline that puts these details into a logical sequence.

Keep in mind, the most important watchword of writing a descriptive essay is show, don’t tell. One of the best ways to show is to involve all of the senses—not just sight, but also hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Write so the reader will see the sunset, hear the song, smell the flowers, taste the pie, or feel the touch of a hand.

3. Start writing

1. Structure your essay in a way that makes sense for your topic. If you are writing about an event, give your paragraphs a chronological order. If you are writing about a place or thing, try ordering your paragraphs so that they go from general to specific. For example: First paragraph: The things you notice when you look at a house from the outside. Second paragraph: The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings etc. that you experience when you are inside the house. Third paragraph: A description of your favorite section of the house.

2. Write your introductory paragraph. The introductory paragraph establishes the main ideas of the essay and sets the tone. This paragraph should include an introduction to your topic followed by your thesis statement.

3. Create a topic sentence at the beginning of each body paragraph. This sentence lets your reader know what the paragraph is going to be about. It should be clear and concise. Each topic sentence should relate back to the thesis statement. Example: Thesis statement: My backyard is like a jungle that I love to explore. Topic Sentence: When I climb a tree in my backyard, I feel like I am climbing a tall jungle tree.

4. Write your body paragraphs based on your topic sentences. Body paragraphs are where you get to prove that your thesis is true. Always keep in my mind that everything you write in your body paragraph should relate to your topic sentence and your thesis. Example: The trees in my backyard are filled with the music of birds. Emeralds leaves sway in sun-filled breeze.

5. Use descriptive words

Do not use vague words or generalities (such as good, nice, bad, or beautiful). Be specific and use sensory, descriptive words (adjectives). For example: I ate a good dinner. OR I devoured a steaming hot, cheese-filled pepperoni pizza for dinner.

Provide sensory details:

Smells that are in the air (the aroma of freshly brewed coffee)

Sounds (traffic, honking horns)

Sights (“The sun scattered tiny diamonds across dew-covered grass as it peeked out from beyond the horizon.”)

Touch (“The texture of the adobe hut’s walls resembled coarse sandpaper.”)

Taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, tart (“Giant goose bumps formed on my tongue when I accidently bit into a sliver of lemon.”)

6. Draw a logical conclusion

Your conclusion should summarize everything you have written in your essay. It should also restate your thesis. It is important to have a well-written conclusion because it is the last thing the reader will read, and will stay in his or her mind the longest. The conclusion may also use descriptive words; however, make certain the conclusion is logical and relevant.

Figurative Language

Figures of speech are imaginative comparisons between two basically dissimilar things. A figure of speech may enliven a description by making the essay more visual or forceful.

Here are some of the more common figures of speech that could prove effective in writing descriptive essays:

  1. Simile - Using the words such as “like” or “as” when comparing.

Example: A ride to North Hutchinson Island is like a flight to a Caribbean


  1. Metaphor - Implying a comparison between two things that are essentially different.

Example: Stalking their prey, the deputies remained hidden in the bushes and ready to spring on speeding motorists.

  1. Personification - Giving human characteristics to inanimate objects.

Example: The truck, covered with mud and love bugs, cried out for a wash.

  1. Overstatement or Hyperbole - Using a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect. Example: I’ll die if I don’t pass this exam.

  2. Understatement - Writing something opposite to what is expected or says something less than expected. Example: Yesterday was a little cool. The high temperature was zero degrees.

  3. Sound words or Onomatopoeia - Using words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions to which they refer. Example: “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” (slogan of Alka Seltzer)

  4. Symbol - A person, place, or thing that represents an abstract idea or concept.

Example: A rock is a symbol of strength

40 Writing Topics: Description

  1. a waiting room

  2. a basketball, baseball glove, or tennis racket

  3. a cell phone

  4. a treasured belonging

  5. a laptop computer

  6. a favorite restaurant

  7. your dream house

  8. your ideal roommate

  9. a closet

  10. your memory of a place that you visited as a child

  11. a locker

  12. an accident scene

  13. a city bus or subway train

  14. an unusual room

  15. a child's secret hiding place

  16. a bowl of fruit

  17. an item left too long in your refrigerator

  18. backstage during a play or a concert

  19. a vase of flowers

  20. a rest room in a service station

  21. a street that leads to your home or school

  22. your favorite food

  23. the inside of a spaceship

  24. the scene at a concert or athletic event

  25. an art exhibit

  26. an ideal apartment

  27. your old neighborhood

  28. a small town cemetery

  29. a pizza

  30. a pet

  31. a photograph

  32. a hospital emergency room

  33. a particular friend or family member

  34. a painting

  35. a storefront window

  36. an inspiring view

  37. a work table

  38. a character from a book, movie, or television program

  39. a refrigerator or washing machine

  40. a Halloween costume

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