Back To CourseComprehensive English: Overview & Practice
14 chapters | 136 lessons
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Kelly earned her Master of Mass Communication from Arizona State and has taught consumer behavior and communication courses at the undergraduate level.
When you hear the word 'describe,' what does it mean to you? For most people, describing is a way of illustrating something with words. You can describe a feeling, a sound, or even an emotion.
Descriptive essays are just the same: they help you illustrate something in a way that your reader can see, feel, or hear whatever it is you're talking about. A descriptive essay allows a reader to understand the essay's subject using illustrative language.
Descriptive essays are great because, in a sense (pun intended), they can help us see places we might not be able to go ourselves, hear new things, taste different flavors, smell foreign smells, or touch different textures. Descriptive essays do this through the use of more concrete concepts, which most often include our five senses.
Behold, the power of using the five senses in a descriptive essay:
'As the waves leisurely collided with the shore, I could hear the delicate lapping of the water as it met the sand. The smell of salt air and a warm afternoon wafted through the sky. Slowly, I awoke from my slumber, cuddled in a hammock that surrounded me like a cocoon. The warm sun brightly shone on my face and greeted me, 'Good afternoon'.'
Based on this paragraph, where is the author? What is going on? Thanks to the five senses, you can gather that he or she is just waking up from what seems like a really peaceful nap in a hammock on a beach somewhere. How do we gather this?
Based on the description, we can see waves hitting the shore as the tide comes in, hear the water as it hits the sand, smell the salty air, and feel the warm sun. See how the senses use concrete things we've all probably experienced to some degree in our own lives to help you visualize a new scene? This is how a descriptive essay uses things we are familiar with - in this case, our five senses - to take us to a tropical paradise.
Even more, the description helps set a mood by using more vivid language to complement the sensory-based description. The author shows us, rather than tells us, what the afternoon on a beach is like.
Rather than saying, 'I heard the waves as the tide came in,' the author says, 'As the waves leisurely collided with the shore, I could hear the delicate lapping of the water as it met the sand.' The extra detail really helps us visualize the scene that the author is trying to create. He or she shows us what it's like to be out there on the beach when the tide comes in during the afternoon, rather than just giving us a play-by-play.
The same vivid language also helps the author to create a mood for this description. We can begin to experience the same peacefulness through the use of words like 'leisurely' and 'delicate.' Again, rather than just telling us it was a really relaxing and peaceful day, he or she lets the descriptive language show us.
Another useful technique for setting a mood with your descriptive writing is to use similes and metaphors. A simile is a phrase comparing two unlikely things using 'like' or 'as' in order to make a description more vivid. You've probably heard the phrase, 'running like the wind' before. This is an example of a simile. Rather than saying, 'running really fast,' you replace the speed with something that might represent running quickly, like the wind.
A metaphor has the same function as a simile, but the comparison between objects is implicit, meaning there is no 'like' or 'as' used to signal the comparison. Here's an example of a metaphor from good old Shakespeare: 'All the world's a stage and the men and women merely players.' Rather than saying life is just like a play, he compares the world to where a play is acted out.
As you can see, similes and metaphors are another tool to help make your descriptions more vivid. They paint a more detailed picture for your reader, making it easier for them to understand what you're saying, not to mention more interesting, because you are showing them what you have in your mind's eye, rather than just telling them.
By now, you probably get the idea that the style choice for your descriptive essay is pretty open. The subject of your essay and the mood you want to create really dictates how your essay is structured. Really, the only rule is to make sure you describe your subject as vividly as possible, using the five senses and showing versus telling.
There are, however, a few ways you can organize your descriptive essay to make it even easier for the reader to follow what you're saying and visualize your subject.
One option is to organize your essay from general to particular. For example, if you were describing the new Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas, you might start out by describing the setting - the smell of the corn dogs frying, the crowds of people, the happy children dodging in and out of the midway games - then get into his grandiose size - after all, everything is bigger in Texas, right? After that, you describe the details: his new crisp, white, pearl snap shirt, his blue jeans tucked into cowboy boots, adorned up top with his signature belt buckle, and so on.
By organizing your essay in this order, your reader not only understands what Big Tex looks like, but they are able to visualize the entire scene as well. As you can see, this structure works particularly well when the subject of your essay is an object.
If the subject was the entire State Fair of Texas rather than just Big Tex, you might choose to organize your essay spatially. Essays organized this way start at one point in a setting and work their way around, describing all of the elements. This allows you to take your reader on a tour of all of the fairgrounds, from the Ferris wheel and midway, to the food court lined with fried food inventions, to the Cotton Bowl stadium.
Rather than describing a thing or a place, your essay might focus on an event. In this case, structuring your essay chronologically is probably your best option. If you were writing your descriptive essay on what you did during your day at the fair, this would be the way to go. Beginning with what you did first, you walk your reader through all the events you encountered during your day.
So, remember, a descriptive essay allows a reader to understand the essay's subject using illustrative language. The best way to paint a picture for your reader is through use of concrete examples, like the five senses, paired with more vivid, abstract language that creates the mood and helps set the overall tone.
Similes and metaphors are figures of speech that can help you better describe your subject and make your writing more interesting by comparing your topic to fitting, yet unlikely descriptive terms.
While many organizational forms are suitable for descriptive essays, three techniques can be particularly helpful: general to particular is a great method for describing an object, spatially can help organize a descriptive essay based on a setting, and chronologically works well for describing an event.
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Back To CourseComprehensive English: Overview & Practice
14 chapters | 136 lessons