Descriptive Essays

Learning Objectives

  • Describe techniques for writing effective descriptive essays or effective passages with description


"The Chronicles of Narnia" book series.

Figure 1. C.S. Lewis, author of the fictitious book series, “The Chronicles of Narnia” is an expert at using descriptive writing.

Description is a rhetorical mode you’ll want in your toolbox because it places your reader in the scene you’re describing. You’ll likely relate this tool to fiction, because the best novels use description to capture our imagination. But description can be important in a personal narrative, a compare and contrast essay, and even a research paper.

Take a look at the detailed imagery in this example from Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. . . . I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. (14)

Coates does so much work in this description of the young men in his neighborhood. Their coats and rings are not literally armor, but the descriptive language allows us to see these things as their armor against a fear driven by a history of lynching. In just a few carefully chosen descriptive words and images, Coates makes an emotional appeal for a different way of seeing these “extravagant boys.” He takes us both to the streets of Baltimore where these boys walk and to the “bad old days” of Mississippi where African-Americans could be lynched with impunity. Clearly, Coates’s use of language transports his reader with compelling, sensory language.

The following passage, for example, could be used in a petition to give the Jemaa el-Fnaa, a marketplace in Marrakesh, protected UNESCO status:

During the day it is predominantly occupied by orange juice stalls, water sellers with traditional leather water-bags and brass cups, youths with chained Barbary apes and snake charmers, despite the protected status of these species under Moroccan law. As the day progresses, the entertainment on offer changes: the snake charmers depart, and late in the day the square becomes more crowded, with Chleuh dancing-boys (it would be against custom for girls to provide such entertainment), story-tellers (telling their tales in Berber or Arabic, to an audience of locals), magicians, and peddlers of traditional medicines.As darkness falls, the square fills with dozens of food-stalls as the number of people on the square peaks. The square is edged along one side by the Marrakesh souk, a traditional North African market catering both for the common daily needs of the locals, and for the tourist trade. On other sides are hotels and gardens and cafe terraces, and narrow streets lead into the alleys of the medina quarter. Once a bus station, the place was closed to vehicle traffic in the early 2000s. The authorities are well aware of its importance to the tourist trade, and a strong but discreet police presence ensures the safety of visitors.

Vivid description can help your audience make an emotional connection to your subject, which is where the true power of the written word lies.

Like many rhetorical strategies for writing essays, description rarely stands alone. So you will be called upon to use your descriptive writing skills in many different kinds of essays.

You can’t compare two items unless you describe them. You can’t illustrate abstract concepts or make them vivid and detailed without concrete description.

We have five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. So, what does it look like, feel like, smell like, or taste like to be hot?

  • “The sweat mixed with its salt stung my eyes, and it dripped from my forehead and slid down my brow.”

In concrete “show, not tell” description, leaves are not “soft” but “velvet”; sirens are not “loud” as much as they “start my Labrador to howling and vibrate the glass panes in my front door.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Russian short story author and physician Anton Chekhov succinctly demonstrates how to show rather than tell in the following quote:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass.

The following illustrates a progressive improvement in description:

  • My friend is big.
  • My friend Jamie weighs 320 pounds and is 5’10”.
  • Since he would never let me risk danger on my own, Jamie scrunched his 5’10’’ frame and all 320 pounds through the narrow cave entrance and into the black tunnel behind me.

Descriptions when using abstract words or concepts are even more important when using concrete objects. For example, your instructor crooks her arm and cups her right hand, stating, “Pretend I am holding a grapefruit. Describe it.” You and your classmates shout out words: “yellow,” “juicy,” “softball-sized,” “pink and pulpy,” and so on. She then cups the left hand and says, “Pretend I am holding love. Describe it.” What would you say? And how do you qualify love and make it distinct? Yes, love is “patient” and “kind,” “sexy” and “luscious,” but these are still abstract words that can have differing meanings to different people. Does love “warm me like a cup of hot chocolate by a fire”? Does it “get up first on a cold morning to make coffee”?

Description is about creating pictures; words are your paint.

Sample Descriptive Essay

Here you’ll see a traditional or typical sample descriptive essay from a beginning writing class. In this assignment, the student was asked to write an essay describing an important day, such as a first date, and to follow MLA guidelines in the essay.