Lesson Objective

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Descriptive Writing

Lesson Objective:

  • To write a description that is appropriate to audience and purpose

Description in Everyday Life

  • Before you leave your home each day, you probably use description.
  • For example, you might describe how well you slept or how a new cereal tasted.
  • Through description, patients tell doctors about their illnesses, travel agencies tempt homebodies to new horizons, victims lead detectives to criminals, and screen writers portray environments for movie producers to build or find.

Description in Everyday Life (2)

  • Description also takes written form.
  • For example, you might write a description about last night’s championship game in an e-mail to a friend, or you might describe a chemical reaction in a report for your chemistry class.
  • In the workplace, too, description plays a vital role.
    • Precise descriptions may convey company procedures, explain benefits packages, or provide detailed instructions for accessing a phone-mail system

What is Description?

  • Writing that enables you to recreate your experiences vividly and share them with others. It includes:
  • Sensory language that shares what the writer sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches
  • Precise language, including vivid verbs and precise nouns
  • Figurative language, such as personification, exaggeration, simile, and metaphor
  • A logical organization, such as chronological or spatial order

Types of Description

  • Descriptions of a person, place or thing contain sensory details that bring to life actual people, places, and things
  • Observations describe an event the writer has witnessed. Often, the event takes place over an extended period of time.
  • Travel brochures contain factual information as well as persuasive language to encourage tourism
  • Character sketches describe fictional characters—their appearances, personalities, hopes, and dreams

Choosing Your Topic

  • Memorable people, remarkable places, unusual events, and intriguing ideas all make great topics for description.
  • Following are more ideas for coming up with a topic for description.

Strategies for Generating Topics

  • Draw or Sketch: use a drawing pencil and paper to sketch a person, place, thing, or event you find interesting. Your sketch may be as abstract or realistic as you like. When you are finished sketching, choose an aspect of the drawing to develop into a description.

Generating Topics II

  • 2. Browse in a Calendar. Look through this year’s or last year’s calendar or date book to spark memories of people and events of the past year. For example, a certain date might remind you of someone you met, a game you played, or your grandfather’s birthday party. Choose one of those memories to form the heart of your description.

Generating Topics III

  • 3. Make a blueprint: Draw the floor plan of a place you know well. Next, label each room or area with a name that makes it personal for you, such as My Studio, Kai’s Hideout, or Mom’s Den. Also, jot down memories or ideas you associate with each room. Then, select the most interesting idea, and make it the topic of your description.

Topic Bank

  • 4. Describe an Idea: Democracy: Think about the concept of democracy and the images it conjures up for you. For example, you may think of a person voting, a town meeting, or a king losing his crown. Then, develop this idea, and write a description of “democracy.”

Topics Bank

  • 5. Recall a Challenging Moment: What was the last big challenge you faced? Write some adjectives or sensory images that arise from your memory of facing that challenge. Then, work your ideas into a description.

Topics Bank

  • 6. Go through your family photo album and choose a picture--a wedding photo, perhaps-- with enough detail to write about. Write a description of what you see, as though speaking to a friend far away. You may describe what is actually in the picture or what you imagine it was like with the full wedding party in sight.

Responding to Literature

  • 7. In “Jazz Fantasia,” the poet Carl Sandburg uses vivid descriptive language to bring jazz music to life. Read the poem, then write a description in response to it by bringing to life your ideas about jazz or any other type of music you like.

Jazz Fantasia

  • Drum on your drums, batter on your banjos,
  • Sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
  • Go to it, O jazzmen.
  • Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
  • Tin pans, let your trombones ooze,
  • and go husha-husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree- tops, Moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, Cry like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, Bang-bang! you jazzmen, Bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans- Make two people fight on the top of a stairway And scratch each other's eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

Can the rough stuff ...

  • Can the rough stuff ...
  • Now a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river
  • With a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo ...
  • And the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars ...
  • A red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills ...
  • Go to it, O jazzmen.

Narrowing Your Topic

  • Use a topic web to explore several aspects of a topic. Then, choose the aspect that most interests you to write about.
  • Make a web
    • Write your broad topic at the top of a piece of paper, and then write subtopics in circles connected to your broad topic by lines.
  • Aunt Bertie
  • Her adult life:
  • Rhodes scholar;
  • historian;
  • world traveler
  • College years:
  • attended Winston College,
  • degree in history,
  • class president,
  • soccer club,
  • Phi Beta Kappa
  • Her childhood:
  • born in 1950s,
  • wore braces,
  • was into soccer

Considering Your Audience and Purpose

  • Choose details for your description that your audience will understand and appreciate.
  • Your choice of details and your tone, or attitude toward your subject, will also help you to achieve your purpose, your overall reason for writing.

Gathering Details

  • Gather a wide range of descriptive details using the cubing technique which is explained below:
  • Just as a cube has six sides or aspects, so may your description topic have different aspects.
  • Following are six ways to look at your topic. Jot down your responses to the directions. Then use your responses to draft your description.

The Cubing Technique

  • Describe It: Provide details about your subject’s appearance, importance, or personality
  • Associate It: Tell what related thoughts come to mind when you think of your subject.
  • Apply It: Provide examples of what you can do with or learn from your subject
  • Analyze It: Describe your subject aspect by aspect, using factual terms
  • Compare and Contrast It: Tell what your subject is similar to or different from
  • Argue for or Against It: Give details that explain your subject’s value or problems


  • Shaping Your Writing
    • Creating a Mood
      • Once you have gathered a wide range of details that appeal to the senses, choose the ones that create an overall mood, or atmosphere.
      • The mood your description provides will add to your reader’s understanding and to their enjoyment of your writing.

Create a Mood--examples

  • Joyous Mood
  • The morning sunlight hit the window above my bed and sent dizzying rays of light dancing over the wall. I sprang up and looked outside. The whiteness was almost blinding in its brilliance. It had snowed!
  • Awed Mood
    • The morning sun was different that morning. It was shining, clear and true, throwing intricate, mysterious patterns onto the wall. With bemused anticipation, I sat up and peered out the window. Snow had fallen overnight, transforming the town into a heartbreakingly beautiful wonderland.

Providing Elaboration

  • Create Figurative Language
    • As you draft, use figurative language to make your description memorable and unique.
    • Following are some commonly used types of figurative language:
  • A simile compares two unlike things using the words like or as.
  • The dog was as fast as a rocket
  • A metaphor compares two unlike things by stating that one thing is the other.
  • The ball of fire rises each morning over the horizon.
  • Hyperbole is exaggeration that is usually used to create a comic effect.
  • The guard was twelve feet tall, with muscles of steel.
  • Personification applies human qualities or behavior to something nonhuman
  • The washing machine danced across the basement floor!


  • Revising your Overall Structure
    • Review your description to be sure that you’ve used a consistent, logical, and effective structural organization.

Revision Strategy

  • Outlining Details to Check your Organization
    • Create an outline to show the content and order of each paragraph in your description.
    • Then, review your outline and rearrange paragraphs, if necessary, to make your description more effective.

Strategies for Organization

  • General to Specific: Use this structure when describing a person, thing, or an idea.
  • Chronological Organization: Use chronological, or time, order to bring events to life for readers.
  • Spatial Organization: Use spatial organization to describe where things are located in relation to each other: for example, a place, building, or an object.

Revising Your Paragraphs

  • Check Unity
    • Review the paragraphs in your description to be sure that the main idea of each describes an aspect of your overall topic.
    • Make sure that individual sentences within a paragraph support the topic sentence.

Revision Strategy

  • Color-Coding to Check Unity
    • With a highlighter, color-code the main idea of each paragraph
    • If any main ideas do not support the topic of your description, rewrite or delete them.
    • Then, use a different-colored highlighter to call out the sentences within each paragraph that support the main idea.
    • Rewrite or delete sentences that stray from the paragraph’s main idea.

Revising Your Sentences

  • Add Modifiers to Enhance Your Description
    • Enliven your description by adding modifiers to dull sentences
    • Through the use of modifiers, you give more information about the subject or verb of a sentence.
    • Modifiers may be single words (adjectives and adverbs) or they may be adjectival or adverbial phrases or clauses.

Revision Strategy

  • Adding Modifiers
    • First, read through your draft and circle any passages that seem terse, dull, or incomplete.
    • Then, add descriptive details, answering the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? And How? through the use of modifiers.
    • Your modifiers may be single words, phrases, or clauses.

Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

  • A modifier is a word or phrase that helps describe anoun or verb in a sentence.
  • An essential ingredient of clear writing is effectively placed modifiers.
  • A modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies.

Misplaced Modifiers

  • A misplaced modifier appears to modify the wrong word in a sentence. In the sentence below, the reader may at first think that “we” were covered with cobwebs and mod, not the cabinet:
    • Covered with cobwebs and mold, we cleaned the old cabinet.l
    • We cleaned the old cabinet that was covered with cobwebs and mold.

Dangling Modifiers

  • A dangling modifier appears to modify either the wrong word or no word at all because the word it should logically modify is missing. In the sentence below, the reader may wonder what, exactly, is “pistoning like spark plugs”?
    • Pistoning like spark plugs in a human engine, the track was pounded.
    • Pistoning like spark plugs in a human engine, the runner’s feet pounded the track.

Revising Your Modifiers

  • Review your draft to identify and correct any dangling or misplaced modifiers.
  • Be sure you have placed your modifiers near their subjects.
  • Be particularly careful about sentences that contain passive voice; they are more likely to contain dangling modifiers.

Revising Your Word Choice

  • Replace Vague Words
    • A vague word—whether it is a noun, a verb, or a modifier—cannot communicate your unique experience.
    • Reread your draft and replace words that are vague with more precise words.
  • Vague Words
  • Precise Words
  • Good
  • Delicious, excellent, well-mannered
  • Looked
  • Stared, glanced, peered, squinted
  • Store
  • Grocery, delicatessen, boutique
  • Cold
  • Freezing, chilly, brisk, frigid

Revision Strategy

  • Circling and Replacing
    • Read through your description and circle words that are vague, dull, or inaccurate.
    • Then replace those circled words or phrases with choices that better reflect what it is you are describing.

Peer Review

  • One way to get feedback on your description is to work with a group of peers and have them comment on the effectiveness of your writing.
  • Use the following activity as you edit your description:

Plus-and-Minus Chart

  • Work in a group of three to five students.
  • Prepare a chart like the one shown and give copies to peers.
  • Read your description aloud to your peers.
  • Then, read the first entry on the chart, and ask your peers to make a thumbs-up sign if their response is positive and a thumbs-down sign if their response is negative.
  • Enter your peers’ responses on your chart.
  • Review the responses and make revisions to your draft as necessary.

Plus-and-Minus Chart

  • Feature Description
  • #1
  • #2
  • #3
  • #4
  • The title is appropriate and interesting.
  • The description contains details such as vivid verbs and precise nouns.
  • The description creates a definite mood, or atmosphere.
  • The writing is unified.
  • Each sentence is clear, with no misplaced or dangling modifiers.

Editing and Proofreading

  • Before you share your description with others, take time to polish it. Correct errors in grammar and punctuation, and make sure that you have spelled everything correctly.
  • Review your description carefully, checking to be sure that you have correctly used commas to separate adjectives of equal rank and to separate a series of adjectives.

Using Commas Correctly

  • Serial Commas: Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses in a series.
    • The restless, tired, and hungry crowd gathered near the mountaintop.
  • Adjectives of Equal Rank: Use commas to separate adjectives of equal rank, called coordinate adjectives.
    • The sweet, delicious pie was a hit after dinner.

Using Commas Correctly

  • Adjectives of Unequal Rank: If one adjective has a closer relationship to the noun than the other, no comma appears between them.
    • Twenty talented acrobats appeared in the circus ring.
  • Check your description to make sure that you have used commas with adjectives correctly. Find items in a series of adjectives. If there are none, challenge yourself to add a series of adjectives.

Publishing and Presenting

  • Display
    • Request a bulletin board at school where you can post your description. Place photos or illustrations around your paper to further enhance its effectiveness.
  • Audiotape
    • Capture your description on audiotape. First, rehearse yourself reading your paper. Mark on your copy where you will pause and what words require special emphasis. Then, record your reading. Play the tape back for family and friends.

Publishing and Presenting

  • Reflecting on your Writing
    • After you have finished your description, think about the experience of writing it.
    • Use these questions to direct your reflection, and record your responses in your journal.
      • What did you learn about the subject you chose?
      • Which strategy for choosing a topic would you use for a future descriptive essay?

Rubric for Self-Assessment

  • Score 4
  • Score 3
  • Score 2
  • Score 1
  • Audience and Purpose
  • Contains details that work together to create a tone
  • Creates a tone through use of details
  • Contains extraneous details that detract from the tone
  • Contains details that are unfocused and create no tone
  • Organization
  • Is organized consistently
  • Is organized but not consistently
  • Is disorganized and confusing
  • Elaboration
  • Contains creative use of figurative language, creating interesting comparisons
  • Contains figurative language that creates comparisons
  • Contains figurative language, but the comparisons are not fresh
  • Contains no figurative language
  • Use of Language
  • Contains sensory language that appeals to the 5 senses
  • Contains some sensory language; contains few errors
  • Contains some sensory language; contains some errors in mechanics
  • Contains no sensory language; contains many errors in mechanics

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