Descriptive Writing


The purpose of descriptive writing is to make our readers see, feel, and hear what we have seen, felt, and heard. Whether we are describing a person, a place, or a thing, our aim is to reveal a subject through vivid and carefully selected details.

The writers below have selected a belonging that holds special meaning to them, identified that belonging in a clear topic sentence, and then described the subject in detail while explaining its personal significance.

Using Sensory Detail

(adapted from Writing@CSU)
It is important to remember that human beings learn about the world through using the five senses. They are our primary source of knowledge about the world. Therefore, writing which incorporates vivid, sensory detail is more likely to engage and effect the reader. 

The following writing sample uses sensory detail to create concrete images. Because the most effective way to incorporate sensory detail is to use all five senses in harmony, this sample provides an effective example of how sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste work together to strengthen writing. Each of the views highlights exactly how each sense is involved in improving the paragraph's imagery.

Example Text: Paragraph Without Sensory Detail

Grandmother Workman reached over and grabbed her grandson's arm. He was nervous because the staircase was so steep, but she leaned against him and they began to climb.


Comment:

These are the beginning sentences of a paragraph which describes a boy helping an elderly woman up a flight of stairs. The scene seems simple enough, but it leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. Without the inclusion of sensory detail, the writing seems vague and non-specific. How might the author use descriptive detail to make the scene more vivid?

Example Text: Add Sight

Gandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal's thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers' labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.


Comment
:
Visual details are often successfully incorporated into writing. Details which appeal to our sense of sight ensure that the reader is able to give faces to characters, or add concrete details to a setting. For example, through adding visual detail, a room can become more than just a blank, vague receptacle. It becomes a small, oblong room with peeling maroon wallpaper and cracked ceiling tiles. A visual description allows readers to place themselves within a text. 

In the sample text, visual details help accomplish this through encouraging the reader to create a mental image of the characters, setting, and action.

Example Text: Add Sound

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal's thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers' labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.


Comment:

The human sense of hearing is an important means of communication. Next to visual details, auditory details are most commonly included in writing. This is because sounds give us a primary experience of the world. Sounds can remind us of personal memories, or can create images in our minds. For example, the sound of a ship's whistle might remind a person of a summer's night in New England, or of a tour of duty in the military. Sounds recreate personal, sensory experiences. 

The addition of auditory details gives the writer the opportunity to create a more detailed, layered, texture. In the sample text, the writer has incorporated references to sounds which allow the reader to infer the state of the old staircase, as well as the physical condition of the grandmother.

Example Text: Add Smell

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal's thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers' labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.


Comment:


The sense of smell is commonly overlooked in writing. However, it is the human sense of smell that is most closely linked to the brain. The receptors in the brain which are responsible for processing smells are very close to the area of the brain responsible for the storage of memory. Because of this link, scents are able to cause vivid sensory re-creations of memories. 

Our sense of smell has an uncommonly strong power over our feelings, thoughts, and emotions. In the sample text, the addition of olfactory details helps set the mood of the paragraph by triggering our senses.

Example Text: Add Touch

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal's thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers' labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.


Comment:


The sense of touch encourages us to investigate the world around us by feeling it and learning the texture, shape, and size of things. Tactile images can be powerful sensory triggers. They allow a reader not only to visualize a scene, but to experience it. Inclusion of the sense of touch prevents the reader from remaining distanced or detached from the writing. 

In the sample text, the sense of touch has been engaged through allowing the reader to recreate a primary sensation: the feel of a person's breath on the back of his or her neck. This is a sensory experience that most people have encountered. Therefore, through recalling familiar tactile sensations the writer encourages the readers to put themselves in the place of the characters.

Example Text: Add Taste

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal's thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers' labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.


Comment: 

The human sense of taste allows a person to do much more than simply select and enjoy food. There are four familiar tastes:
Sweet
Salty
Bitter
Sour
By appealing directly to any of these tastes, a writer has the unique opportunity to affect a reader's senses. Memories, feelings, people, and places can all be suggested through the sense of taste.


Model Descriptive Paragraphs: Objects

A Friendly Clown

In the following paragraph, observe how the writer moves clearly from a description of the head of the clown (in sentences two, three, and four), to the body (sentences five, six, seven, and eight), to the unicycle underneath (sentence nine). Notice also how the concluding sentence helps to tie the paragraph together by emphasizing the personal value of this gift.

On one corner of my dresser sits a smiling toy clown on a tiny unicycle--a gift I received last Christmas from a close friend. The clown's short yellow hair, made of yarn, covers its ears but is parted above the eyes. The blue eyes are outlined in black with thin, dark lashes flowing from the brows. It has cherry-red cheeks, nose, and lips, and its broad grin disappears into the wide, white ruffle around its neck. The clown wears a fluffy, two-tone nylon costume. The left side of the outfit is light blue, and the right side is red. The two colors merge in a dark line that runs down the center of the small outfit. Surrounding its ankles and disguising its long black shoes are big pink bows. The white spokes on the wheels of the unicycle gather in the center and expand to the black tire so that the wheel somewhat resembles the inner half of a grapefruit. The clown and unicycle together stand about a foot high. As a cherished gift from my good friend Tran, this colorful figure greets me with a smile every time I enter my room.

The Blond Guitar

by Jeremy Burden
My most valuable possession is an old, slightly warped blond guitar--the first instrument I taught myself how to play. It's nothing fancy, just a Madeira folk guitar, all scuffed and scratched and finger-printed. At the top is a bramble of copper-wound strings, each one hooked through the eye of a silver tuning key. The strings are stretched down a long, slim neck, its frets tarnished, the wood worn by years of fingers pressing chords and picking notes. The body of the Madeira is shaped like an enormous yellow pear, one that was slightly damaged in shipping. The blond wood has been chipped and gouged to gray, particularly where the pick guard fell off years ago. No, it's not a beautiful instrument, but it still lets me make music, and for that I will always treasure it.


Gregory

by Barbara Carter
In the next descriptive paragraph, the student writer focuses less on the physical appearance of her pet than on the cat's habits and actions.

Gregory is my beautiful gray Persian cat. He walks with pride and grace, performing a dance of disdain as he slowly lifts and lowers each paw with the delicacy of a ballet dancer. His pride, however, does not extend to his appearance, for he spends most of his time indoors watching television and growing fat. He enjoys TV commercials, especially those for Meow Mix and 9 Lives. His familiarity with cat food commercials has led him to reject generic brands of cat food in favor of only the most expensive brands. Gregory is as finicky about visitors as he is about what he eats, befriending some and repelling others. He may snuggle up against your ankle, begging to be petted, or he may imitate a skunk and stain your favorite trousers. Gregory does not do this to establish his territory, as many cat experts think, but to humiliate me because he is jealous of my friends. After my guests have fled, I look at the old fleabag snoozing and smiling to himself in front of the television set, and I have to forgive him for his obnoxious, but endearing, habits.


The Magic Metal Tube

by Maxine Hong Kingston
The following paragraph opens the third chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Knopf, 1976), a lyrical account of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California. Notice how Kingston integrates informative and descriptive details in this account of "the metal tube" that holds her mother's diploma from medical school.

Once in a long while, four times so far for me, my mother brings out the metal tube that holds her medical diploma. On the tube are gold circles crossed with seven red lines each--"joy" ideographs in abstract. There are also little flowers that look like gears for a gold machine. According to the scraps of labels with Chinese and American addresses, stamps, and postmarks, the family airmailed the can from Hong Kong in 1950. It got crushed in the middle, and whoever tried to peel the labels off stopped because the red and gold paint come off too, leaving silver scratches that rust. Somebody tried to pry the end off before discovering that the tube falls apart. When I open it, the smell of China flies out, a thousand-year-old bat flying heavy-headed out of the Chinese caverns where bats are as white as dust, a smell that comes from long ago, far back in the brain.


Model Descriptive Paragraphs: Places

In each of these four paragraphs (the first composed by a student, the rest by professional writers), the author uses precise descriptive details to evoke a distinctive mood as well as to convey a memorable picture. As you read each paragraph, notice how place signals help to establish coherence, guiding the reader clearly from one detail to the next.

The Laundry Room

The windows at either end of the laundry room were open, but no breeze washed through to carry off the stale odors of fabric softener, detergent, and bleach. In the small ponds of soapy water that stained the concrete floor were stray balls of multicolored lint and fuzz. Along the left wall of the room stood ten rasping dryers, their round windows offering glimpses of jumping socks, underwear, and fatigues. Down the center of the room were a dozen washing machines, set back to back in two rows. Some were chugging like steamboats; others were whining and whistling and dribbling suds. Two stood forlorn and empty, their lids flung open, with crudely drawn signs that said "Broke!" A long shelf partially covered in blue paper ran the length of the wall, interrupted only by a locked door. Alone, at the far end of the shelf, sat one empty laundry basket and an open box of Tide. Above the shelf at the other end was a small bulletin board decorated with yellowed business cards and torn slips of paper: scrawled requests for rides, reward offers for lost dogs, and phone numbers without names or explanations. On and on the machines hummed and wheezed, gurgled and gushed, washed, rinsed, and spun.

Mabel's Lunch*

by Wright Morris
Mabel's Lunch stood along one wall of a wide room, once a pool hall, with the empty cue racks along the back side. Beneath the racks were wire-back chairs, one of them piled with magazines, and between every third or fourth chair a brass spittoon. Near the center of the room, revolving slowly as if the idle air was water, a large propeller fan suspended from the pressed tin ceiling. It made a humming sound, like a telephone pole, or an idle, throbbing locomotive, and although the switch cord vibrated it was cluttered with flies. At the back of the room, on the lunch side, an oblong square was cut in the wall and a large woman with a soft, round face peered through at us. After wiping her hands, she placed her heavy arms, as if they tired her, on the shelf.

  • Adapted from a paragraph in The World in the Attic, by Wright Morris (Scribner's, 1949).

Subway Station*

by Gilbert Highet
Standing in the subway station, I began to appreciate the place--almost to enjoy it. First of all, I looked at the lighting: a row of meager light bulbs, unscreened, yellow, and coated with filth, stretched toward the black mouth of the tunnel, as though it were a bolt hole in an abandoned coal mine. Then I lingered, with zest, on the walls and ceilings: lavatory tiles which had been white about fifty years ago, and were now encrusted with soot, coated with the remains of a dirty liquid which might be either atmospheric humidity mingled with smog or the result of a perfunctory attempt to clean them with cold water; and, above them, gloomy vaulting from which dingy paint was peeling off like scabs from an old wound, sick black paint leaving a leprous white undersurface. Beneath my feet, the floor a nauseating dark brown with black stains upon it which might be stale oil or dry chewing gum or some worse defilement: it looked like the hallway of a condemned slum building. Then my eye traveled to the tracks, where two lines of glittering steel--the only positively clean objects in the whole place--ran out of darkness into darkness above an unspeakable mass of congealed oil, puddles of dubious liquid, and a mishmash of old cigarette packets, mutilated and filthy newspapers, and the debris that filtered down from the street above through a barred grating in the roof.

  • Adapted from a paragraph in Talents and Geniuses, by Gilbert Highet (Oxford UP, 1957).

The Kitchen*

by Alfred Kazin
The kitchen held our lives together. My mother worked in it all day long, we ate in it almost all meals except the Passover seder, I did my homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and in winter I often had a bed made up for me on three kitchen chairs near the stove. On the wall just over the table hung a long horizontal mirror that sloped to a ship's prow at each end and was lined in cherry wood. It took up the whole wall, and drew every object in the kitchen to itself. The walls were a fiercely stippled whitewash, so often rewhitened by my father in slack seasons that the paint looked as if it had been squeezed and cracked into the walls. A large electric bulb hung down the center of the kitchen at the end of a chain that had been hooked into the ceiling; the old gas ring and key still jutted out of the wall like antlers. In the corner next to the toilet was the sink at which we washed, and the square tub in which my mother did our clothes. Above it, tacked to the shelf on which were pleasantly ranged square, blue-bordered white sugar and spice jars, hung calendars from the Public National Bank on Pitkin Avenue and the Minsker Progressive Branch of the Workmen's Circle; receipts for the payment of insurance premiums, and household bills on a spindle; two little boxes engraved with Hebrew letters. One of these was for the poor, the other to buy back the Land of Israel. Each spring a bearded little man would suddenly appear in our kitchen, salute us with a hurried Hebrew blessing, empty the boxes (sometimes with a sidelong look of disdain if they were not full), hurriedly bless us again for remembering our less fortunate Jewish brothers and sisters, and so take his departure until the next spring, after vainly trying to persuade my mother to take still another box. We did occasionally remember to drop coins in the boxes, but this was usually only on the dreaded morning of "midterms" and final examinations, because my mother thought it would bring me luck.

Adapted from a paragraph in A Walker in the City, by Alfred Kazin (Harvest, 1969).


Model Description using Metaphor, Comparison and Analogy: A Person

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman

by Michael Chabon
Here are two good description paragraphs of one character from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Notice the use of figurative language in these paragraphs as Chabon uses metaphor, simile, hyperbole, comparison and analogy to help the reader form an image of Rabbi Shpilman through misdirection, with the added benefit of achieving humorous results.

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trowsers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see. (135)

That body, the horror and the splendor of it, naked as a giant bloodshot eyeball without a socket. Litvak had seen it only once before, years ago, topped with a fedora, rolled tight as a wad of Pinar del Rio into a stiff black greatcoat that swept the toes of his dainty black boots. Now it emerged ponderous from the steam, a slab of wet limestone webbed with a black lichen of hair. Litvak felt like a fogbound airplane buffeted by updrafts into the surprise of a mountain. The belly pregnant with elephant triplets, the breasts full and pendulous, each tipped with a pink lentil of a nipple. The thighs great hand-rolled marbled loaves of halvah. Lost in the shadows between them, a thick umbilicus of grayish-brown meat. (341)


Model Student Descriptive Essay: My Neighborhood

Beneath the Veil

By Asya Cook (College Now Student, Fall 2009)


Eastchester Gardens is a seemingly quiet neighborhood, secluded by a thick green veil of tree tops. The exterior of the buildings once looked like a milk chocolate Hershey bar, specked with white marshmallows as windows. As time progressed the buildings look more like sun baked dirt in the Mojave Desert that has lost its original color and texture. The interior of the buildings make the sun baked exterior look like a Michelangelo masterpiece. The lobby tiles are a sea of hardened blood. The graffiti that is on the floor often marks the tragic death of a tenant. Most recently a young woman named Anna earned her spot on the tiles when she was killed in a horrific car accident. The prolix stenciled vines that added beauty to the building were covered years of eggshell colored paint and dried saliva. The once majestic buildings have conceded to the new wave of the residents that have no pride in where they live.

The stairwell, elevator, and basement are the most unappealing aspects of the buildings. The stairs are metal shafts that amplify the slightest step ten fold. In the early morning the constant boom of each step is heard by the people going downstairs to work. The landings between floors are so rusted that the slightest amount of pressure, the metal slab violently dips. In the stairwell it is impossible to differentiate between day and night. As you ascend up the stairs there are deep shadows behind every corner. The air smells like a mixture of rust and marijuana. The area is littered with multicolored condoms that naive children unwittingly use as sling shots. There is only one elevator per building the elevator is used as a bathroom for dogs and unruly teenagers. The stale air smells like lemon-scented Pine Sol and strong urine which makes breathing undesirable. The fly-and-rodent-infested basement can be characterized as a dump. The smell of garbage is suffocating and the ever present buzzing of the flies as they whiz past your ears is a nuance. Few people dare to go down in the basement alone especially after dark because predators take their victims in the basement as a place to do their grisly misdeeds without fear of being disturbed.

As much as they charge for rent, one would expect a fully furnished, state-of-the-art apartment. The walls are off white colored with gloss finish with shale colored floor tiles. In the winter there is hardly any heat from the radiators and during the summer the stifling heat is unbearable. Housing feels that they can turn off the hot water and heat any time they need to save themselves money. Housing turns off the hot water and heat at least five times a month. The worst feeling in the world is while taking a shower the hot water abruptly switches to cold. There is no notice in the lobby and the hot water is off all day. It is not advised to stick your hand under the cold water; the water is so cold in fact that it feels like knives are slicing your skin. The floors become so icy that the cold will reverberate to your very bone with pain as it feels like you are stepping on a sheet of ice. The alternative way to warm your apartment is to turn on your gas oven and wait for the heat as well as the carbon monoxide to circulate throughout the apartment.

During the morning hours, the few senior citizens in the neighborhood come out and socialize before the young adults take over in the afternoon. The elderly congregate in the community center on the North West section of the complex. The trees' veils only let a lucky few rays of sunshine through its myriad branches. Once the sky tints to a deeper shade of blue, the elderly vanish and the young adults settle in to the park benches and the various parks where they commence their mischief. The cover of night gravely contradicts the "Best Public Housing Award." The adjacent avenue serves as a racing strip. The sidewalk is lined with by-standers waiting for the conclusion of the race. The cheers are reverberated though the abyss of the projects. The people continue to race along the deserted strip until a person gets upset about a result and starts a shoot out.

If there are no late night races, the area is never short of a prolonged party. The parties do not begin until the late afternoon or early evening and extend into the early morning. The cultures of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans proudly blast their Latin music with no regard for those that are trying to get sleep. The nights are also consumed by uncensored rap music and incomprehensible reggae and West Indian music. The parties have an endless supply of a large variety of liquor: Grey Goose, Patron, Hennessey and Jack Daniels flow more frequently that water.

The Old recollections of how Eastchester Gardens were the envy of all public housing tenants and how beautiful the courtyards and gardens were kept are a distant memory today. The elderly people move out of the project at an alarming rate, leaving the doors open for young adults to overrun the area with out much fear of getting caught by authorities. The once pristine buildings are in shambles. It is a shame when you want to invite company over, but your neighbors don't care how they live they are the constantly fueling the stereotype of public housing projects. It is important to take pride in were you live.