Looking for help with descriptive writing?

The goal of descriptive writing is for readers to see, hear, smell, taste or feel your topic as if it’s right in front of them, like they’re there. Descriptive writing has a point, though it isn’t always directly stated. The description should convey a dominant impression.

For example, let’s say you’re describing a hospital room. If you dislike hospitals, you’d probably describe the room as foul smelling, the halls as plain. But another person might see a place that’s sparkling clean and sunny.

Examples of Descriptive Writing

Writing a descriptive essay often involves both objective and subjective elements. Objective elements are the plain facts. For example, let’s say the hospital room is at 77 degrees. In objective description, you would simply state the temperature. But in subjective description, you might refer to the room as stuffy or sweltering. That’s your assessment of the temperature; another person might disagree.

So, which details you choose about a topic and the language you use to convey them create the dominant impression.

How much detail is needed depends on your audience, what you’re describing, and the goal of your description. Most people have been to a hospital, so describing a hospital room would require just enough details to create the dominant impression. You might mention what’s on the walls, what kind and how many chairs there are, the color of the curtains, etc. Readers would fill in the rest from their own experience with hospital rooms.

On the other hand, most of us have not been to the moon. So if you wanted to describe the lunar landscape for us, you would have to go into specific detail about what we would see there, what kind of sounds we would hear. How would it feel to move in the lower gravity? Readers would need you to give them every detail of the scene because they have no experience to flesh it out with.

Also, the more you want readers to focus on something, the more description you should give it. This technique lets you control what your readers dwell on and what they pass over quickly.

TIP: While you may be asked to write an entire descriptive essay, descriptive writing is also an important part of other writing styles, such as narrative writing and persuasive writing, and is especially crucial in creative writing.

Steps to Successful Descriptive Writing

1. Gather specific details on your topic.

Description is about conveying to readers what your senses are taking in. First, you have to be aware of what that is. You have to really pay attention to whatever you’re writing about. What exactly do you see? What do you hear? And don’t neglect the other senses. What do you smell and feel or even taste if it applies?

TIP: One of the most common mistakes in descriptive writing is to let sight take over the whole description. If necessary, close your eyes to get information from your other senses as well.

2. Use the most vivid language you can to describe your topic.

Your goal is to put your sensory experience into words so powerfully that your reader will feel like they’re right there. As much as possible, use concrete words that describe physical objects or sensations.

This may require you to learn some new terminology. If you're describing a house, is it a colonial or a Victorian? Is the car you're describing a coupe or a sedan? A quick dictionary or internet search should tell you the right word to use.

2. Decide what dominant impression you want to convey.

This is the idea that your whole description will be built around. Which details you choose and what language you convey them in depend on this.

To choose a dominant impression, consider: when you look at your subject, what catches you eye? What do you notice most? What makes this person, place or object distinctive and unlike others? Focus your description around what stands out.

4. To make your description flow, present details in spatial order.

Near to far, top to bottom, side to side, front to back, or in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction are some possibilities. Choose a natural starting point based on your topic. With a person, you might start with their face. With a house, you would start at the front door. In describing a whole scene, it's usually best to work form big to small. Describe the trees in the forest before the insects, for example. Use transition words to move from one detail to the next.

How can I improve my descriptive writing?

- Be careful that the details in your description don’t conflict. Even one detail that works against the dominant impression will confuse readers and interfere with your point. Also, remember that what you think of as a good thing, another person might see as negative. So be sure that your language clearly conveys your attitude.

- Don't confuse describing with making value judgments. Remember that the primary goal of description is to convey sensory information. You can't describe a town, for example, just by saying that it's a nice place. You have to give physical details like the size of the town, its layout, the style of the buildings, etc. The best descriptive writing creates a clear image in the reader's mind. Readers can then decide for themselves that it's a nice town.

- Convey sensory detail by telling readers how your senses reacted to it. You might write that the sunlight was so bright it made you squint. This is an experience your readers have had, so this will make them feel like they’re seeing the sunlight too.

TIP: This technique is especially useful in describing smell, which can be challenging. There are a limited number of words to describe scent: pungent, heavy, smoky, for example. For a more captivating description, write how the smell makes your nose feel. For instance: The smell seemed to stick in the back of your throat. Or scratch your throat, make your eyes water, your nose run, etc.

- Use comparisons to convey sensory detail. When you really can’t find a word to describe a sensory detail, or you’ve run out of words, you can describe one thing by comparing it to another. You might write that the medicine tasted like molten metal, for example. Or the sweater was as soft as your cat’s fur.

CAUTION: When you use comparisons in your description, make sure they don’t conflict with your dominant impression. If you were trying to describe a scene as tranquil, comparing the honking of the geese to horns in a traffic jam would detract from your point.

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If you need help with other forms of writing, follow the links on the Academic Writing page. This is just one area covered by Writing with Confidence. For help with related topics, like creative writing and journal writing, go back to our home page.

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