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The Writer’s Reference Book



A descriptive essay uses several writing techniques to convey scene, emotion, and meaning. Descriptive essays focus on people, places, things, and moments.


  • Use details. If you are writing about the weather, use all your senses to describe a bitter cold day or the last day of summer. Penetrate your experience without becoming myopic. When writing about place, make the place come to life for the reader. Be a reporter. While writing about orange farmers struggling with frost, writer John McPhee noted that their grove had three kinds of oranges and that ripe fruit was on their trees eight months of the year. “All year long, they said, they drank concentrate at breakfast.”
  • Use all your senses. How did the apple orchard smell? How did the wet grass feel under your feet? What was the light like? How did she smile?
  • Make connections between objects. Compare something to another thing it is not normally related to by using similes (which uses like or as to compare) and metaphors. If something is flat, it could be flat as a marine crew cut.
  • Don’t tell; show. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg explains that by describing a mother’s face, the rush of energy she feels when her baby enters the world, or the father applying a wet washcloth to her forehead, a writer shows without having to explain the nature of life.
  • Write with emotion. Good description triggers emotions without being maudlin. Art is communication. Good writing can connect readers and writers by conveying the bitterness or beauty of one person’s isolated mountain climbing experience.
  • Use imagery and symbolism. Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about a frog whose head and spirit sink into a creek as he is eaten by a giant water beetle. She writes of water as a gift: “The sharks I saw roving up and down the coast. If the sharks cease roving, if they twist and rest for a moment, they die. They need water pushed into their gills; they need dance.” Through detailed descriptions about her experiences in nature she talks about life and death.
  • Punch up your verbs and adjectives. Forget is and was. Does someone tease or does he cajole? Instead of dull use vapid. Does something nibble or does it gnaw? Use vituperative. Contumacious. Look up words.
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