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Question Description

  • Write a 500-750 word essay using description as the chief method of development.
  • The purpose should be to inform and/or entertain your reader.

The act of description should:

  • appeal to several of your reader's senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and even taste
  • maintain an awareness of how your tone is influencing your reader's impression of your subject
  • use figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, etc.) carefully and economically, as it works to greater effect when not overused
  • exercise your creativity
  • avoid cliches, like "his eyes were as blue as a summer sky in June" or "my heart felt like it would explode from happiness."
  • push yourself to find new and interesting ways of describing your subject

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Your primary goal is to describe something or someone for your reader, preferably something that you know well and that your reader might only have the opportunity to experience through your writing. For example, I have had students write wonderful essays on parts of the world they experienced by way of their military experience. I have read touching tributes describing children, grandparents, or pets. Many students choose to describe beloved objects, such as a car, a house, or a collectible item. I received a phenomenal descriptive essay once about a typewriter. True story.

  • Choose a subject that you know well: a person, a place, an object, etc.
  • Choose a subject that you care about and for which you feel something, either positively or negatively.

If you are having a hard time thinking of a topic for description, see the list at the end of "Chapter 3: Description" in The Longman Reader (p. 135).

Developing Click for more options

  1. Accumulate Details:
    • Brainstorm for as many details as you can list about your subject.
    • Examine them for effectiveness and originality.
    • Throw out those that are weak, irrelevant, cliched, overused, or ineffective.
  2. Organize:
    • Group the details into subgroups according to a system of organization. These subgroups will generally become individual paragraphs in your essay.
      • For example, for an essay on a vintage typewriter, you might have subgroups of "how it looks," "how it performs," and "history/context" (such as details about the typewriter's age, manufacturer, etc.)
    • Outline the subgroups into an order that works to achieve the effect you desire.
      • For example, you might want to start by being informative ("history/context"), move into sensory details ("how it looks"), and work up to making an emotional impact.
      • *Hint! You now have an outline. Consider saving this somewhere to include with your final essay.
    • Think about the function of the introduction and conclusion paragraphs:
      • Introduction: Think of the best way to introduce your subject and grab your reader's attention. It might be a short anecdote involving the subject and demonstrating its importance to you (without declaring it). It might be a surprising fact or statistic. It might be a quote from a well known source (don't forget citation!). It might be placing your subject in context, for example providing geographical or historical details about a favorite vacation spot you'll be describing or how your beloved dog came to be in your life.
      • Thesis Statement: Identify the subject clearly and make a statement about its importance, whether that be a brief preview of a lesson you learned or an emotional reaction to it. For example, in an essay describing the first day of boot camp (I get this one a lot!), a writer might lead up to this thesis statement: "Day one in Fort Polk on a scorching, humid July day showed me a brief preview of the hardships, sacrifices, and ultimately the pride I would encounter as a soldier in the U.S. Army."
      • Conclusion: Here is where you discuss the "implications" of what you've just described, meaning the conclusion that can be drawn from how you've described it. This could be a lesson learned, how it has impacted your life, how it might be important now or in the future, or why the reader should care about it.
  3. Draft:
    • Use vivid language and varied sentence structure.
    • Avoid "announcing," such as, "I am going to write about my favorite dog" or "I chose this topic because it has impacted my life."
      • In creative writing speak, "Show, don't tell." Use tone and word choice to guide the reader toward your desired effect.
    • Use direct statements that have impact and potency.
    • Draw out your subject using descriptive adjectives.
      • Expand beyond vague words and phrases (like "good" or "bad," "great," "beautiful," or "interesting").
      • Push past overused expressions (such as "it was meant to be" or "everything happens for a reason").
      • Use a thesaurus to find new ways of saying things, such as "enraged" instead of "angry" or "luminous" instead of "shining."
    • Balance multi-sensory details (sight is easy, but don't forget the impact that other senses can achieve) with contextual details.
  4. Revise and Edit:
    • Read the essay out loud. Whenever you stumble or notice anything awkward or unclear, this is usually an indication of a problem. Highlight it to return to later and address the issue.
    • Get a second opinion. Have another set of eyes (a peer, a trusted friend, or a Writing Lab tutor) provide some feedback.
    • Review formatting rules (listed in detail on the "Course Policies" page) and polish up the final draft.

Be sure that you are writing a descriptive essay, not a narrative. A narrative (which comes next!) tells a story, usually one with a clearly defined beginning, a conflict of some sort that gets encountered, and a resolution or cliffhanger. A descriptive essay is not a story so much as it is an account, explanation, or illustration of a subject. There is no story arc. The focus remains on describing the subject.

Tutor Answer

School: Boston College


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