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Descriptive Essay

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“The fog comes / on little cat feet.”1 In his poem, “Fog,” Carl Sandburg captures the essence of fog by describing it in a pretty unusual way. Yet, fog does move like a cat – silently, smoothly, and disappearing as suddenly as it arrives. Notice how much more interesting Sandburg’s description is than simply stating that it's foggy?

In a descriptive essay assignment, you’re expected to use sensory and figurative language to help your reader form a picture in their mind. Descriptive papers are categorized into three broad formats (a personal essay, formal description, or impressionistic description), and they could branch into a myriad of topic ideas. After you've chosen your topic, brainstormed your ideas, and created your outline, you can follow the standard format to write your essay.

Myriad: an enormous amount of something.

Fun fact: myriad technically means the number ten thousand

Descriptive Essay, Colorful books representing colorful essays, StudySmarterColorful books on a shelf, Pixabay.

Descriptive Essay Definition

As the name suggests, when writing a descriptive essay, your main aim is to describe something thoroughly from a personal, formal, or impressionistic perspective. Descriptive essays share some characteristics with narrative essays, but descriptive and narrative essays' end goals are different.

A narrative essay explores a theme using narrative techniques, while a descriptive essay's goal is to illustrate an object, place, or concept thoroughly.

Descriptive Essay Formats

Descriptive Essays are categorized as:

  1. Personal Essay: A description of a personal experience that affected your life.
  2. Formal Description: An impersonal, precise report of the subject’s characteristics – you are like a camera.
  3. Impressionistic Description: An attempt to create an emotional response in the reader through the use of descriptive language.

Sensory Details

Sensory details refer to the features of the five senses–taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. When you use sensory details appropriately to describe your subject, you create a moving experience for the audience. As a result, they become emotionally invested and eager to read more. There are a couple of points to keep in mind when using sensory details:

  • Make sure your sensory details have a purpose: As you write, ask yourself whether the component you are including is necessary. If it does not add to the point of the essay, leave it out. Too many descriptive details can make your essay sound muddled.
  • Follow a consistent pattern in your description: For example, if you describe a flower, choose a starting point and work your way outward. If you bounce around from the stem to the stamen and then back to the leaves, it creates a disjointed image – similar to a cubist Picasso painting.

Descriptive Essay, Cubist face representing disjointed description, StudySmarterA cubist image of a face representing disjointed writing, Pixabay.

Showing Versus Telling

Which is more engaging: Sandburg's creative description of fog or a lengthy, scientific explanation of fog? Where appropriate, using figurative language to communicate the subject of your essay to the reader can create more interest than simply explaining the idea.

Examples of figurative language include:

  • Metaphor: substituting one thing for another to draw an association, e.g., "love is a battlefield."
  • Simile: compares two things using "like" or "as," e.g., "as happy as a clam."
  • Personification: gives an object human-like characteristics, e.g., "the wind whispered in the trees."
  • Hyperbole: an exaggerated description, e.g., "he was hungry enough to eat a horse."
  • Symbolism: an object that represents something else, e.g., using a red rose to represent love.

Do the figurative language examples seem really, really familiar to you? Yes? They are all clichés, meaning they are images that have been used too often. If you want your writing to sound unique, avoid clichés like the plague.

Descriptive Essay Topics

You will be describing the topic of your descriptive paper in minute detail, so it's crucial to pick one that excites you. Here are a few example descriptive essay categories and topics:

An Object

  • Your favorite childhood toy.
  • An object that reminds you of a loved one.
  • A tree that always catches your eye.

A Place

  • Your favorite hangout.
  • Your favorite vacation destination.
  • Your room.

An Event

  • Your first day of high school.
  • Losing your first tooth.
  • Your first concert.

A Person/Animal

  • Someone you admire.
  • Someone you love.
  • Your pet.

Learning to write a descriptive essay is important because it teaches you how to focus on your writing style and vocabulary. When you describe something in the level of detail a descriptive paper requires, it shows you a different way of engaging with the world around you.

Descriptive Essay Structure

Structure your descriptive essay into a traditional essay format with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Wrap up the essay by rewording your subject's thesis and central points. Don’t introduce new ideas. The conclusion is the final impression, so keep the energy level consistent.

Descriptive Essay Outline

Before you sketch your outline, give some thought to researching your essay topic. Sources are not usually required for descriptive essays, but pictures, letters, text messages, and conversations can provide vivid details. In addition, brainstorming helps you decide which features make the most sense to include in the essay and how to include them. Experiment with the description’s sequence when you write the outline.

Once you have everything figured out, your outline should look something like this:

I. Introduction

A. Hook (e.g., a statistic or quote)

B. Connection between the topic and hook

C. Thesis statement

II. Body paragraphs (number of paragraphs will vary)

A. Main point of the paragraph

B. Description of the main point

C. Transition to the next paragraph or conclusion

III. Conclusion

A. summary of the thesis

B. Summary of the main points

C. Final impression

Descriptive Essay Example

The following example of an abbreviated descriptive essay will give you an idea of what a completed descriptive essay assignment could look like:

Around 11% of Americans have a panic attack every year.2 For years, I was rushed to the emergency room, sometimes weekly, sure that I was dying. It became more frustrating every time doctors said nothing was wrong with me and sometimes treated me like I was just trying to get drugs. Blood work and vitals were within normal limits, so I was a hysterical patient in their eyes. But, in my eyes, they were missing something. My heart was pounding, I was dizzy, and my chest hurt. A voice loop in my brain kept telling me this wasn’t a panic attack, but a panic attack happens unexpectedly, leaving you feeling out of control and like you could die.

My first panic attack happened when I was walking with my kids. The world shifted to the left, and my son asked me a question, but all I could hear was a tinny buzz and a whirl of thoughts fighting with each other, some screaming, “I’m going to die!” and others ordering me to "act normal, don't scare the kids." There’s a python wrapped around me, waiting for me to exhale so it can squeeze slightly tighter after every breath, and I freeze because the sidewalk is marshmallow under my feet. The trees stand their ground, brilliantly green leaves fingering the sunlight. I run my hand along a nearby trunk, and its cat tongue bark gives me a lick. The breeze pricks at my skin, giving me goosebumps while I create patterns in the tree's bark – dark lines merging into wizened faces, into pits and curves, taking a chance to smile at my son when the python’s grip slips a bit. The image of pretending to be a willow tree while I was in ballet pops into my head. My roots grounded, arms branched and lazily waving. They undulate like a python. Finally, the python slithers away, and I ask my son what was he saying. I had never felt anything like that before.

In a list of many, one of the unnerving things about panic attacks is that they can happen at any time. In addition, their symptoms can mimic serious health emergencies such as a stroke or heart attack. Your brain says you are under attack, and it takes practice to believe otherwise – lots of practice.

Let’s look at some of the author’s techniques:

The descriptive essay example is personal and impressionistic. It discusses an event that affected the author's life in a way that attempts to make the audience feel something. The long sentence structure mimics the feeling of racing thoughts. The words “buzz” and “pops” are examples of onomatopoeia. The metaphors and simile develop images in the reader’s mind. Hyperbole expresses the physical sensation and irrational thoughts.

Onomatopoeia: when a word mimics the sound it describes.

Descriptive Essay, Blank pictures waiting for words to develop, StudySmarterDescriptive essays are like blank instant photographs waiting to be developed by your words, Pixabay.

Descriptive Essay - Key takeaways

  • Descriptive essays describe objects, places, or concepts in deep detail.
  • Descriptive essays can be personal, formal, impressionistic, or a combination of styles.
  • Descriptive essays use sensory details and figurative language to show rather than tell the audience about the subject.
  • There are numerous options when picking a descriptive paper topic, so choose the one you'll enjoy writing about.
  • Descriptive essays follow a commonly used essay structure with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
  • Researching the descriptive essay topic will help you include vivid details in your writing, brainstorming will help you decide what to include, and the outline will help organize the sequence of the essay topic.

1 Sandburg, Carl. "Fog." Chicago Poems. 1916.

2 "Panic Disorder." Cleveland Clinic. 2020.

Descriptive Essay

A descriptive essay describes an object, place, or concept in deep detail.

Some descriptive essay topics are:

  • Your favorite childhood toy
  • Your favorite vacation destination
  • Losing your first tooth
  • Your pet

Learning to write a descriptive essay is important because it teaches you how to focus on your writing style and vocabulary. When you describe something in the level of detail a descriptive paper requires, it also teaches you a different way of engaging with the world around you.

You write a descriptive essay using sensory images and figurative language to create a picture of the subject for the reader.

Examples of descriptive essays include:

  • "A Hanging" (1931) by George Orwell
  • "Once More to the Lake" (1941) by E.B. White
  • "My Misspent Youth" (2001) by Meghan Daum

Final Descriptive Essay Quiz


Why is learning to write a descriptive essay important?

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All of the above

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What is a descriptive essay?

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A descriptive essay describes an object, place, or concept in deep detail.

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What are some types of figurative language?

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All of the above

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What is a cliché?

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A cliché is an image or saying that has been overused. 

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Why should you follow a consistent pattern in your description?

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You should follow a consistent pattern in your description because if you don't, it creates a disjointed image in the reader's mind.

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Why should you research you descriptive essay topic?

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Researching your descriptive essay topic helps you include concrete details in your writing.

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What is a personal descriptive essay?

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A personal descriptive essay describes an event that affected the author's life.

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What is a formal description descriptive essay?

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A formal description descriptive essay creates an impersonal, photograph-quality image of a subject.

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What is an impressionistic descriptive essay?

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An impressionistic descriptive essay attempts to create an emotional reaction with its description.

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True or False: You can combine descriptive essay formats.

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True: Descriptive essay formats can be combined depending on the subject.

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