A descriptive essay is both expository and creative. When you write a descriptive essay, you use rich diction to make your chosen subject come alive. Your job is to describe in detail a person, place, or thing.
You describe things every day of your life. Just think: you tell your friend about the date you had last night in great detail, or you describe how good that bowl of ramen was yesterday.
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You tell your parents about your bad day at school, or you make fun of your teacher.
Writing a descriptive essay just asks you to do the same in writing.
What Is a Descriptive Essay?
Consider the difference between these two paragraphs:
Big Macs are popular because they taste good in addition to being cheap and filling. Every time I go to a McDonald’s restaurant, I order a Big Mac because when I am hungry, nothing else hits the spot. Ordering a Big Mac is a simple process. Eating a Big Mac allows me to grab a quick lunch before I go to work. Although they are unhealthy and fattening, I like Big Macs because they are salty, fatty, and delicious.
Even before I opened the door, the thick, nauseating aroma of French fries filled my nose and making me wince. The restaurant was filled with loud children, two of which screamed at the top of their lungs demanding more food from their mothers. A long line had formed at the ordering counter, and I took my place behind the last person. After a grueling five minutes of waiting, I place my order for a Big Mac. When my sandwich finally arrives, I can feel the saliva already filling my mouth. The first bite of familiar salt and fat fills my mouth with pleasure, obscuring all the inner voices telling me to stop eating such disgusting food.
Both paragraphs describe a Big Mac, notice how the second paragraph has richer detail about a specific moment in time as well as the item being described? The first paragraph is more about why you like Big Macs, whereas the second paragraph is more about the experience of ordering one. This is what a descriptive essay should be. You are asked to engage all five senses to invite your reader on a journey.
Describing With the Five Senses
In a descriptive essay, you will almost always be expected to use as many of your senses as possible. If you can use all five senses, then you can create truly fantastic descriptive essays.
The use of the five senses in your description is known as imagery.
Of course, it will not always be possible to employ all five senses in every scene but with a little practice, you might find that you are writing just as much about the taste of fear in your mouth as you are about the feel of your heart beating in your chest.
Sight: Consider color, size, shape, design patterns, straight versus curvy lines, where the item is in relation to other items, lighting.
Sound: Pitch, tone, duration, volume, intensity, melody, rhythm, cadence
Taste: Metallic, bitter, sweet, overly sweet, sour, familiar, unfamiliar
Touch: Smooth, bumpy, sharp, gummy, gooey, viscous, sandy, grainy
Smell: Garbage, sewer, tar, sulfuric, floral, fruity, overripe, coffee, like grandma’s house
Using Metaphors and Similes
One of the hallmarks of a descriptive essay is using the literary devices of metaphor and simile.
Metaphor and simile are types of figurative language.
Figurative language is the opposite of literal language.
That couple has eight children.
That couple breeds like rabbits.
Both a metaphor and a simile describe something in terms of something else, to transform an unfamiliar person, place, or thing into something the reader will find familiar and can relate to.
Bubble tea has large black balls at the bottom called pearls. These pearls have a gummy texture, and when you chew them, they are a lot like gummy bears.
The italicized portion of this passage (“they are a lot like gummy bears”) is a simile. Bubble tea pearls are being compared with gummy bears. They are like gummy bears, even though they are not the same thing.
He stayed in the sun so long that he looked like a baboon’s butt.
In this example, you compare the person to a baboon’s butt. You could have said, “He stayed in the sun so long, he turned red,” but using the simile adds a humorous dimension to your description.
A metaphor achieves the same goal but in a more direct way. Metaphors are commonly used in tasting notes for wine.
This cabernet sauvignon has aromas of plum and fresh tobacco, with lingering notes of dark cherry.
Plum, tobacco, and dark cherry are not actual ingredients in the wine, but are the closest things that the taster will recognize when sampling it.
Metaphors function as more assertive versions of similes.
There was a tower of food on my plate.
Your plate of food was not a literal tower, but you want the reader to imagine how much food the kitchen piled onto it.
She was an ogre that day.
The person you are describing was not a mythical creature in a literal sense, but her demeanor made her a metaphorical ogre.
An extended metaphor is a descriptive writing technique in which you spend a good paragraph or so describing your object in terms of another.
Extended Metaphor Example
She was an ogre that day. Her pent-up resentment made her skin look puffy, and her lack of sleep was turning her skin chartreuse. With hunched-over shoulders, she would grumble a few words that sounded like gibberish. If you asked her to repeat what she said, she would yell or spit out abuses like, “What are you, deaf?” In true ogre spirit, she seemed ready to bite off our heads at the slightest disturbance. No amount of kind words could restore her sense of humanity.
While you may be tempted to use metaphors, similes, analogies, and other figurative language that is familiar to you, be careful of using clichés.
A cliché is an overused term or phrase. If you find yourself using a cliché, spend an extra minute thinking of a new way of saying the same thing. Keeping it fresh will make your descriptive essay a lot better. If you want good grades, avoid clichés as much as possible.
She eats like a horse.
She eats like a mother bear emerging from her den at the first thaw of spring.
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
When you write a descriptive essay, your job is to make a person, place, or thing come alive for a reader.
You will put your reader to sleep unless you use imagery, simile, metaphor, and other literary devices.
Example of Telling
The church was an old building, built in 1795. It was big and attractive.
Example of Showing
Most of the townsfolk thought the church was haunted. Built in 1795, the bell tower loomed over the town, casting a long dark shadow across the public square each and every afternoon.
Descriptive Essay vs. Narrative Essay
A descriptive essay is similar to a narrative essay, in that both of them may use rich detail, imagery, simile and metaphor.
A narrative essay is almost always descriptive, but a descriptive essay is not necessarily narrative.
Unlike most other formal academic essays, descriptive essays and narrative essays can be written in either first or third person. Use whatever you prefer, or whatever the assignment instructions indicate.
Example of a Descriptive Passage in First Person
The room smelled of freshly brewed coffee when I walked in. Sunlight streamed in from the windows, causing me to squint, temporarily blinding me and making me feel cranky. I set down my book with a sudden thump, which startled my sister. She filled the cup, the sound of the liquid stream making me anticipate the rejuvenating power of caffeine. I took a sip so eagerly, I burnt my tongue on the hot liquid, but I did not care. It tasted so good, at once of chocolate and cherries. My sister makes the best coffee in the world.
Example of the Same Descriptive Passage in Third Person
The room smelled of freshly brewed coffee. Sunlight streamed in from the windows, illuminating dust particles in the air and exposing all the stains on the kitchen counter. Julie filled a cup from the carafe, breaking the silence in the room. The warm cup was comforting, and the coffee tasted like chocolate and cherries. Julie makes the best coffee in the world.
How to Write a Descriptive Essay
There are four main steps to writing a descriptive essay:
1. Picking a subject
2. Outlining and prewriting
3. Rough Draft
4. Polishing and Revision
Descriptive Essay Topics
The first step to writing a descriptive essay is picking a subject or topic you want to describe. Most descriptive essays will be about people, places, things, events/experiences, or feelings.
Someone in your family
A role model
A famous person
A character in a novel
A place you have been on vacation
A famous landmark
Your college or university
A natural setting like a forest or beach
A kitchen gadget
A food item
A music festival
A religious ritual
A party you attended
How you felt when you broke up with your first boyfriend/girlfriend
How you felt when you got into college
How you felt when you walked into a room of people you did not know
Descriptive Essay Outline
The second step in writing a descriptive essay is prewriting, including brainstorming and outlining.
Loosen up your mind by jotting down anything you can think of in relation to the person, place, or thing you are describing. Doing prewriting exercises like these will make the process of writing the essay a lot easier because you are no longer starting from a blank slate.
Do not worry about full sentences at this point. Just write down colors, smells, and anything that comes to mind.
Ask yourself some questions like:
What does this person, place, or thing remind you of?
If this person were an animal, which animal would he or she be?
Is the object you are describing hard or soft? Cold or hot? Where does the object belong, and where does it not belong?
An essay outline is the transition point between brainstorming and the essay itself. All the thoughts you had about the person, place, or thing can coalesce into the blueprint for your essay.
An essay outline is a road map for your descriptive essay. Because a descriptive essay borders on creative writing, you may not need to use a five-paragraph essay format as you would for other types of expository essays.
You may still be asked to use the five-paragraph essay structure, though:
A. Tell the writer what you are about to describe.
B. Thesis statement that mentions several of the core characteristics of the person, place, or thing
II. Body paragraph one
III. Body paragraph two
IV. Body paragraph three
Another way of structuring your descriptive outline would be to use each body paragraph to describe a different aspect of the person, place, or thing.
If you are describing a person, for example, you could use the following type of outline:
A. Introduce the person
B. Thesis: This person comes from a wealthy background, has a healthy body, and good communication skills.
II. This person’s family was wealthy, but the person does not take their position of privilege for granted.
II. This person volunteers twice per week at the homeless shelter
A. This person lives in a small and humble home
III. This person maintains a healthy body
A. This person is a vegetarian
B. This person exercises every day
IV. This person has good communication skills.
A. This person listens patiently and with good eye contact
B. This person speaks calmly and focuses only on positive aspects of the situation.
A. This person shows how to live an ideal life because of their grace, discipline, and kindness.
Descriptive Essay Outline Example
Let’s say you are going to write a descriptive essay of a church service. Your outline might look like this:
A. On January 23, 2021 I visited the orthodox Greek Church in Buffalo, NY, for a Sunday service.
B. Thesis: The main features of the religious ritual included the smell of incense, the sound of chanting, and the formal attire.
B. The smell of the old building
B. The voice of the priest during the sermon
C. The sounds of the congregation
A. Clothing worn by clergy
B. Clothing worn by people
C. The stained glass windows, wood, and other interior design elements
A. An orthodox religious service is a multisensory experience, involving different smells, sounds, and sights that set the sacred space apart from the ordinary world.
Descriptive Essay Example
Using the above outline, we can write a rough draft.
On January 23, 2021 I visited the orthodox Greek Church in Buffalo, NY, for a Sunday service. The loud chimes of my alarm broke into my deep sleep at 7AM. Feeling the cool water on my body during my morning shower woke me up faster than coffee could, and I hustled to put on a conservative outfit: a plain blue shirt and beige pants. After a bland breakfast of crunchy but soupy cereal in milk, I sped down the road in my car towards the building I had seen before but had yet to enter. The engine purred and within five minutes I was in the Orthodox Greek Church parking lot. Walking in with a steady stream of worshippers, I took my seat in one of the back pews, all of which were made of maple wood. This was my first time attending an Orthodox Church service. The main features of the religious ritual included the smell of incense, the sound of chanting, and the formal attire.
The smells of the Orthodox Church are remarkable, exotic, and evocative. This particular church is in a historical building, and I noticed the mustiness right away. It was a pleasant mustiness, the kind that reminds me of being in an old library. The smell of old books and wood makes the church feel connected with history. Likewise, the use of frankincense and myrrh resin incense brings to mind the Biblical times. An Orthodox Church ritual feels so ancient partly because of this characteristic aroma. Incense smoke fills the air but without becoming too intense, possibly due to the good ventilation system and the high ceilings. The smell also induces a calm state of mind as the service begins.
Chanting and the droning sound of the priestly voice are the overarching sounds at the Greek Orthodox service, punctuated by the occasional cough or murmur from the congregation. Less participatory than a Protestant religious ritual, there was some audience participation in the singing. Overall, though, the Orthodox service seemed stoic because most of the sounds emanated from the high altar. The priest did most of the talking, and occasionally chanted some Biblical verses and prayers. A chorus also filled the air with angelic voices that in unison carried the hopes and dreams of the congregation to heaven. As if the incense did not already induce an altered state of consciousness, the religious chanting puts the mind into a trance state during the ceremony.
Befitting the orthodoxy of the Sunday service, all the congregants wore formal attire, and the clergy wore long flowing robes suitable to their station. The formality of the clothing matched that of the ceremony itself. There was no color scheme for the members of the congregation, except for the fact that the priest wears all black. The room was filled with both artificial and natural light streaming in from the stained glass windows and skylights. It was apparent the building had been renovated and rebuilt over the years, evidenced by the obvious new additions and annexes. The floor was also a newer tile, which clashed somewhat with the wood beams on the ceiling. Incense censers dangled from strategic places on the ceiling, and Byzantine-style gold leaf religious iconography of the saints adorned the altar.
An orthodox religious service is a multisensory experience, involving different smells, sounds, and sights that set the sacred space apart from the ordinary world. A blend of old world and new, the Greek orthodox ceremony reveals the way a religion can serve as the link between the past and the present. Gilded and ceremonial as many of the elements of the church service are, the ceremony was also simple in other ways, via the use of ancient incense, timeless chanting, and conservative priestly vestments.
Hopefully after reading this article you have a much better idea of what a descriptive essay is and how to write one. In fact, all of us already use descriptive language in our daily lives. Writing a descriptive essay is a natural extension of the way we think and communicate about the world around us.
A descriptive essay can be fun to write. Writing a descriptive essay allows you to be creative, and to think like a poet.
When you describe something, you want to use all the five senses if possible: showing the reader what the person, place, or thing might look, feel, smell, taste, or sound like to them.
You can use a descriptive essay to describe an event or situation from your past, a moment in time, a person, a place, or an item.
You will frequently use similes and metaphors in a descriptive essay, which allows you to practice your writing skills. With similes, metaphors, and other types of figurative language, you bring your description to life like Dr. Frankenstein animated his creature.