What do I need to know about ... Descriptive Writing?

What's the point?

The main purpose of descriptive writing is to describe something (a place, person, object, emotion, situation) so that you create an image, or a picture in the reader's mind, of what you are writing about. The key thing with descriptive writing is that you need to create / bring to life an image inside the head of your reader rather than give them a cold factual account of the thing being described. So, for example, Instead of saying that something is beautiful you need to manipulate language in order to create the impression that the thing you are describing is beautiful.

What are the conventions?

Descriptive writing, primarily uses adjectives to create imagery. This is the simplest way to describe, although, there are other literary features to be included in descriptive writing.
  • Similes, Metaphors, Personification
  • Words relating to one's senses (sight/touch/hearing/smell)
  • Showing rather than telling - e.g. 'My heart was close to bursting' rather than 'I was scared'
  • These senses can be mixed up (called Synaesthesia) in order to heighten sensation and really bring the scene to life e.g. tasting something that you can normally only see, such as 'the warm buttery taste of sunlight on a Summer's evening'
  • Very specific adjectives as opposed to general, commonly used ones and a sophisticated vocabulary
  • Varied sentence lengths - short sentences followed by long sentences. Short sentences work well at the start of a descriptive writing piece to grab attention or they can be used when you want to change tone, change pace of create a sudden shock
  • Varied sentence structures - again to help foreground the attention of the reader on the most important elements and demonstrate your control over structure to the examiner. Most English sentences are structured Actor, Verb Object - e.g. 'I (Actor) ate (verb) the apple (Object)' but a varied sentence structure might bring the verb to the front and may even put an adverb in front of that: 'Slowly (adverb) devouring (interesting verb) the apple (object) I rose from my chair and ...'
  • Repetition to emphasis key moments, elements or ideas
  • Order - descriptive writing usually has an element of organisation either chronologically or in order of importance. This can be disturbed if you want to and your description may be circular ending back to where it started which can be used to create an effect of inescapability, monotony or routine. An alternative structure is to start right in the middle of the action to grab the attention of the audience and then 'flash back' to an earlier point in time in order to explain the events leading up to the point where you started
  • Alliteration, sibilance, assonance, harsh consonants, hyperbole - descriptive writing is as close to poetry as you can get in narrative writing and so use all the tools that a poet has at their disposal to create effects


Hints and Tips


Do’s:


  • Do make up facts to your work more interesting - e.g. if asked to write about you first day at school then you don't have to write about your actual first day, which may have been quite boring and ordinary or perhaps you can't even remember it. Instead write about the first day in school from hell - complete with monstrous senior studies students stalking the corridors and slime oozing from the cockroach infested salad in the canteen
  • Do use every opportunity to display your knowledge of writing - exams are about showing off - so don't feel you have to stick to the truth if you feel you can write more interesting lies: however, your lies must be sane and believable - ridiculous descriptions will not gain you any marks
  • Do focus on small details- thes give you more to write about and more opportunities to use a variey of descriptive techniques: don't feel like you have to describe everything, or to use the example above, your whole first day. A brilliant account of your fitst 5 minutes in the sandpit will probably score more marks than a routine plodding through of everything that happened on your first day in kindergarten
  • Do think like an examiner- include points that you would give marks for if you were an examiner


Don’ts:

  • Don’t forget to answer the question- if you focus too much on the fine detail you can lose sight of what you’re trying to answer
  • Don’t sacrifice detail for quantity
  • Don’t forget to use similes, metaphors and hyperbole


Example Questions

1. Describe your first vacation.
2. Describe your most memorable moment.
3. Describe the day when you went to the candy store.
4. Describe your day at the theme park with your friends.
5. Describe the room you’re in.
6. Describe your adventure to the exotic island.
7. Describe your life as a dog.
8. Describe your day as a bird.


Example Answer

I felt my excitement building up as I walked towards the door; it was a gateway to heaven. I couldn’t believe it, as I had been counting down to this day for months. The people walking past me from the candy store looked exceedingly pleased, as if all problems in life could be solve by what lay beyond the door. Their faces glowing with delight. I was getting closer and closer to the door; I could feel my hands perspiring. I could only just reach the handle, I pushed with all my strength and it was finally it, I was in the candy store...