Chapter 4: What Are You Writing, to Whom, and How?

4.4 Description

Learning Objectives

  • Determine the purpose and structure of the description essay
  • Understand how to write a description essay

The Purpose of Description in Writing

Writers use description in writing to make sure that their audience is fully immersed in the words on the page. This requires a concerted effort by the writer to describe his or her world through sensory details.

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, sensory details are descriptions that appeal to our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Your descriptions should try to focus on the five senses because most people rely on at least some these senses to experience the world. The use of sensory details, then, provides you the greatest possibility of relating to your audience and thus engaging them in your writing, making descriptive writing important not only during your education but also during everyday situations.

Tip: Avoid empty descriptors if possible. Empty descriptors are adjectives that can mean different things to different people. Good, beautiful, terrific, and nice are examples. The use of such words in descriptions can lead to misreads and confusion. A good day, for instance, can mean many different things depending on the reader’s age, personality, or tastes.

Writing at Work

Whether you are presenting a new product or service to a client, training new employees, or brainstorming ideas with colleagues, the use of clear, evocative detail is crucial. Make an effort to use details that express your thoughts in a way that will register with others. Sharp, concise details are always impressive.

The Structure of a Description Essay

Description essays typically describe a person, a place, or an object using sensory details. The structure of a descriptive essay is more flexible than some of the other rhetorical modes. The introduction of a description essay should set up the tone and point of the essay. The thesis should convey the writer’s overall impression of the person, place, or object described in the body sections or paragraphs.

The organization of the essay may best follow spatial order, an arrangement of ideas according to physical characteristics or appearance. Depending on what the writer describes, the organization could move from top to bottom, left to right, near to far, warm to cold, frightening to inviting, and so on. For example, if the subject is a client’s kitchen in the midst of renovation, you might start at one side of the room and move slowly across to the other end, describing appliances, cabinetry, and so on. Or you might choose to start with older remnants of the kitchen and progress to the new installations. Maybe start with the floor and move up toward the ceiling.

Writing a Description Essay

Choosing a subject is the first step in writing a description essay. Once you have chosen the person, place, or object you want to describe, your challenge is to write an effective thesis statement to guide your essay. The remainder of your essay describes your subject in a way that best expresses your thesis. Remember, you should have a strong sense of how you will organize your essay. Choose a strategy and stick to it.

Every part of your essay should use vivid sensory details. The more you can appeal to your readers’ senses, the more they will be engaged in your essay. See Appendix 1: Readings: Examples of Essays to read a sample description essay.

Self-Practice Exercise 4.3

H5P: Documentation tool

Exercise Preamble

Choose something to describe; it can be anything you like, but if you’re feeling stuck, here are some suggestions:

  • Train station
  • Your office
  • Your car
  • A coffee shop
  • Lobby of a movie theater
  • Mystery option (Choose an object to describe but do not explicitly tell what it is. Describe it, but preserve the mystery.)

For this exercise, we will be thinking as far as the outline.

  • What sensory details will you highlight in your description, and what words will you use to evoke them? Try to touch on as many of touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound as you can.
  • What order will you share your details in: spatial (eg. describing details as they appear clockwise in a space) or sensory (eg. describing details in the order your senses experience them)? Give a few points to illustrate.


  • Determine your thesis statement. Yes, even descriptive writing has a thesis that states a claim or perspective.
  • Try drafting a rough outline for this descriptive piece. Pay special attention to making sure the details are specific and that the order you reveal the details in makes sense.

Key Takeaways

  • Description essays should describe something vividly to the reader using strong sensory details.
  • Sensory details appeal to the five human senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
  • A description essay should start with the writer’s main impression of a person, a place, or an object.
  • Use spatial order to organize your descriptive writing.


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Writing for Success - 1st Canadian H5P Edition Copyright © 2021 by Tara Horkoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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