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UMGC Effective Writing Center Write to Describe

Our ability to be part of the physical world is made possible through our five senses:  touch, sound, taste, sight and smell. So it’s not surprising that description, a form of writing that draws upon the five senses, often plays an important role in the writing we do, whether in school or on the job. 

Real-World Description

In a marketing class you might describe how an advertisement uses sensory details to entice its audience to a spa.

As witness to a crime you might have to describe a suspect to law enforcement.

As a doctor or nurse you might have to describe changes in a patient over the course of a treatment.

Dominant Impressions

Most often, the purpose of these descriptions is to create a dominant impression for the reader. All of the details and language that you use should contribute to creating this cumulative effect.

A dominant impression is the single image and emotion you wish to create for the reader, word-by-word, detail-by-detail. Take, for instance, the aftermath of a flood.  Let's say that you need to describe the devastation of a 100-year flood as a means to discuss decision-making in community planning land use.  

For your writing to achieve its purpose, you would use description to evoke the five senses as your strive to create this dominant impression of the damage endured by an existing community to spur your reader to action:

  • Sight:  The shops and restaurants of the town's main commerce corridor stand empty, their goods washed out into the street.
  • Hearing: Rushing waters made it difficult for those in need of help to be heard.
  • Touch: Yards have become mud fields, pulling at the feet of those trying to survey the damage.
  • Taste: Displaced community members are reliant upon canned food as they shelter in the high school gymnasium.
  • Smell: Mold has already taken root across the town, it's distinctive smell permeating the air.

Body Paragraph Structures

The introduction paragraph of your descriptive essay would, like openings of other types of academic writing, introduce the subject and provide a thesis at or near the end of the paragraph. Next would come a series of body paragraphs that build the dominant impression with descriptive details. Methods of organizing these body paragraphs will vary depend on the subject and your approach to it.


Organizing Descriptive Paragraphs

Spatialtop to bottom, front to back, small to large, inside to outside, and so forth
Climaticmost to least important, most to least familiar, dramatic to the mundane, general to detailed, abstract to concrete
Chronologicalnewest to oldest, past to present and future,  stream of consciousness (random chronological pattern)
Implied (by assignment)Describe Franciso Goya’s use of shadow and diminishing line in his painting “The Third of May." Implies a descriptive response that moves from light to dark, foreground to background, or vice versa.


Figurative Language

Language can be divided into two categories: literal and figurative. With literal language you mean exactly what you say: "That orange plant is a pumpkin." In this sentence, the word "pumpkin" has its literal meaning: a North American squash with a thick shell associated with Halloween. However, if you wrote "Because of her cold, Michelle's head felt like a pumpkin with nostrils," you don't really mean that Michelle's head feels like a squash. You used figurative language to evoke the stuffed-up, heavy feeling often produced by a head cold.

Figurative language is important in descriptive writing because it evokes the five senses--sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell--from the reader's memory. Three common types of figurative language for doing this are similes, metaphors, and personifications.

Simile: If you recognize the root word of "similar," that's because a simile says that one thing is similar to another in an important way. To make this comparison, a simile uses the words like, as, than, seems, or as if. Examples:

  • Tonight's moon is brighter than the end of a flashlight.
  • His face looked as beat up as an old running shoe.
  • Taking drugs is like flushing your brains down a toilet.
  • The old chain saw bucked up from the limb as if possessed by demons.
  • She lives in a neighborhood so quiet even the houses seem asleep.

Metaphor: Metaphors also show how two dissimilar things can share an important trait. However, instead of saying something is like something else, the metaphor says that it is something else. Examples:

  • Theodore is a hog when it comes to cheese pizza.
  • When catching mice, our old cat is a bolt of cold fury, striking without warning.
  • One of my favorite Elvis Presley lyrics is "I'm just a hunka hunka burning love."

Personification: In this type of description, you give objects and abstractions human qualities in order to help them come alive for your reader's senses. Examples:

  • Fate wriggled its way into our lives and soon we grew apart.
  • At the end of the drag race, his hot rod was barely breathing.
  • Her kiss left my lips dumbstruck with an ache no other woman could satisfy.

Just Close Your Eyes

Whatever the subject,  descriptive writing provides one of the most creative assignments you receive in school. Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner once described his writing technique this way to students: “I close my eyes and write down everything I see.” Maybe you won’t win a prize, but writing to describe is your chance to use the power of words to let others glimpse what only you can see.

Image Still for Video: Using “like” and “as”: An Effective Writing Center 2-minute video

Using “like” and “as”: An Effective Writing Center 2-minute video

These two words might seem interchangeable, but deciding which to use in certain situations can improve your writing’s clarity.

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