Because description is a mode of expository writing relied upon in other expository modes, we sometimes find difficulty in
imagining a purely descriptive essay. In a narrative, for example, description can make the setting of characters more
vivid. In a process paper it can insure that the audience understands the finished product. Regardless of how we use
description, it certainly strengthens an essay considerably.
Students often ask, "But how do I write a purely descriptive essay? What's the point of description? What's so different
about it?" There are three characteristics of a purely descriptive essay worth remembering.
First, a descriptive essay has one, clear dominant impression. If, for example, you are describing a snowfall, it
is important for you to decide and to let your reader know if it is threatening or lovely; in order to have one dominant
impression it cannot be both. The dominant impression guides the writer's selection of detail and is made clear to the reader in
the thesis sentence.
Second, a descriptive essay can be objective or subjective, giving the writer a wide choice of tone, diction, and attitude.
For instance, an objective description of one's dog would mention such facts as height, weight, coloring and so forth. A
subjective description would include the above details, but would also stress the writer's feeling toward the dog, as well as its
personality and habits.
Third, the purpose of a purely descriptive essay is to involve the reader enough to help him/her actually visualize the
things being described. A descriptive essay deals with the distinctiveness of the object or scene.
1. The descriptive essay relies on concrete, sensory detail to communicate its point. Remember, we have five senses, not one or
two. Use as many as appropriate.
2. The writer of a descriptive essay must carefully select details to support the dominant impression. In other words, the
writer may omit details incongruent with the dominant impression, unless the dominant impression is one which points out these
3. Description very often relies on emotion to convey its point. Because of this, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives convey more to
the reader than do nouns.
4. Unless the description is objective, you must be sure that the dominant impression conveys an attitude.
1. Try giving all the details first; the dominant impression then is built from these details.
2. Check your details to be sure that they are consistent with the dominant impression. You might even want to write down the
five senses on a scratch piece of paper and check to see that you have covered them all.
3. Try moving your reader through space and time chronologically. For instance, you might want to describe a
train ride from start to destination, or a stream from its source to the point at which it joins the river.
4. Use a then-and-now approach to show decline, change or improvement. The house where you grew up might now be a rambling
shack. The variations on this strategy are endless.
5. Select an emotion and try to describe it. It might be more difficult to get started, but it can be worthwhile.
Washburn University Writing Center, 257 Morgan Hall This handout adapted and revised from one originally prepared by
the Purdue University Writing Lab, West Lafayette, IN.