Think about this: Have you ever gone into a hardware or grocery store knowing there was something you needed, but not knowing the name of the item? You may have had to rely on your ability to describe the item in order to explain to the salesperson what you were seeking. In order to make the person understand, you may have had to use metaphors, analogies, and examples.
This is exactly the task of a writer when writing a descriptive essay; to describe for the reader an event, person, place, thing, or idea to such an extent that the reader then understands something or believes something he or she did not understand or believe, before. It's an exceptionally important skill to develop, no matter a student's major field of study.
The secret to successfully completing a descriptive essay lies in the inclusion of three elements: the dominant impression thesis, visceral details, and a spatial structure.
A Dominant ImpressionNo matter what you're describing, be it a person, place, thing, idea, or event, you must choose a dominant impression to consistently convey throughout your essay. For example, if you are going to describe your messy roommate, you should not include details about how your roommate is also a good dancer because the dominant impression is that your roommate is messy. If you are describing a frightening experience with the dentist, the dominant impression is that it was frightening, not that it was inconvenient or helpful.
In a descriptive essay, the place for the dominant impression is in the thesis statement, the sentence or few sentences that convey the main idea, your opinion about the topic. The same statement of opinion can be included in your topic sentences within the body paragraphs to help maintain unity in your essay. For example, the thesis statement for your essay about your roommate could read, “College living is a lot more stressful than I expected because my roommate is a slob.” A topic sentence that supports that idea could read, “First, whenever my roommate leaves the room, she leaves her books and notes all over the floor, which makes me worry that I might trip and fall when I jump down from my upper bunk.”
You will prove your point by providing details that support these ideas.
Visceral DetailsIt’s very important, when writing description, to use visceral details. Visceral details are images that relate to the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Instead of telling the reader that your roommate’s dirty dishes smell terrible, describe the smell to the reader. Do the dishes smell terrible like old socks, like fish left in the sun too long, or like a swamp at low tide? Are the piles of toothpaste in the sink just annoying, or are they a health concern because they are slimy and growing mold? Telling the reader the toothpaste is annoying can mean any number of things. Telling the reader the toothpaste is slimy and growing mold is a specific example that proves your point; your roommate is a slob.
The Spatial StructureAlthough a categorical approach works well in a descriptive essay, another more unique way to organize your ideas is to use the spatial organizational structure. This means your writing moves “through space,” or like a movie camera, as you recall and give details. The movie camera helps determine the point of view and the order of details.
Let’s pick on your roommate one more time: You could describe your roommate’s messy bedroom from top to bottom, or from bottom to top, left to right, or doorway to bathroom door.
If you were to choose top to bottom, you might begin by addressing the spaghetti noodles stuck to the ceiling, then move to the dead goldfish on top of the bureau, then write about the books and papers all over the floor.
On the other hand, if you were to describe the room from doorway to bathroom door, you might start by explaining to the reader how you have to step over piles of papers without touching the bureau for balance because of the dead goldfish stuck to the top of it. Then, you could explain how stressed out you are as you cross to the bathroom because you fear the spaghetti noodles on the ceiling could fall on you at any moment. Last but not least, you could tell the reader that even after making it all the way to the bathroom door, you’re afraid to enter the bathroom when you see that your roommate still hasn't cleaned the moldy toothpaste from the sink.
Whatever the details you choose to include, be sure the details support your dominant impression thesis statement. Then, write the details you choose to include for maximum impact by making them visceral for the reader. Finally, be sure to choose an order for your details that explains your point as clearly as possible for the reader.
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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.