The Descriptive Essay

The Rhetoric Sample Descriptions
The Assignment

A Writing Process for Description


The items listed above were all selected because of their use of sensory details, not necessarily as examples of essays. However, Picking Cotton and Dulce et Decorum est both qualify as arguments. Each has a specific point (claim or thesis) to make and each uses sensory details to support the point.

Angelou’s short sketch, "Picking Cotton" is from her autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This selection illustrates her approach for the whole book; it is largely a series of relatively short, self-contained, highly polished stories or sketches like this one. Because of this short, high quality nature, her works are often used as examples in writing classes.

“Picking Cotton” is a kind of essay. It has a thesis statement, which is supported with evidence. It is a "claim with reasons," that is, an argument.

The following two statements mean roughly the same thing:

Claim + reasons = argument
Thesis + evidence = essay

     While Angelou’s argument shares the same main features as all argument, some distinctions are worth noting. First of all, she places her claim (the thesis statement) at the very end of the essay. Very few writers have the skill to place a thesis at the end as she does. Although she makes it look easy and natural, it is very difficult, usually requiring a good deal of rewriting. I don’t recommend this strategy for beginning writers. To place a thesis at the end usually requires drafting an entire essay in the standard manner and then restructuring it sentence by sentence until the arrival of the delayed thesis seems as natural as if we had already discovered it before we reached it.

     Secondly, the nature of the evidence (the reasons) in this argument is striking. Angelou relies almost totally on the rhetorical strategy of “description.” Angelou is widely recognized as a master of this skill.

For our purposes, description may be defined the use of sensory details. In using description writers attempt to recreate sensory experiences in the mind of the reader, using words that evoke the following:


If you study Angelou’s story, you will see that she has included each of these at various places in the essay. Unlike beginning writers, she does not rely totally on the sense of sight.
      The key to effective use of sensory details is specificity. When you use description don’t talk about trees or dogs or cars but rather about an old silver maple with a tire swing and initials carved in the trunk, standing in the yard of a white Victorian house in an old and quiet neighborhood. Talk about a blond cocker spaniel with mud on its front left paw. Talk about a rebuilt, two-tone ‘57 Chevy Bel Aire, blue on white, with tinted glass. Make the reader smell the leaves, taste the coffee, touch the velvet.
      Notice how Angelou makes the readers hear the homemade slippers sliding across the rough wooden floor. We smell onions and oranges and kerosene. We see the “caterpillar green” cotton fields. We taste soda crackers and sardines. We feel the coarse texture of the cotton sacks.
      Since "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a poem, it may not at first seem to be an argument. But the poet as a definite argumentative goal and uses vivid description to achieve his purpose. The two selections by Mark Twain are from his book Huckleberry Finn. Supposedly they are spoken by Huck himself, and as such, they are certainly not models for grammatical purity. But read beyond the dialect and find the sounds, smells and other sensory details. "Landibg Zone Bravo" is from Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel Going After Cacciato (although calling it novel about the Vietnam War is a little like calling Moby Dick a book about fish). In addition to the plethora of sensory details, pay particular attention to O'Brien's ability to capture the sense of three dimensional motion by the simple device of a Coke can.

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The Assignment

Your task is to write an essay of at least 500 words describing a place.

Write a one-sentence thesis that expresses the dominant mood or impression of this place.
(For example: “Sam’s Bar and Grill on Petunia Street is a very frightening place on a Friday night” or “My Grandmother’s Kitchen is a model of domestic efficiency” or “Mr. Dill’s office clearly demonstrates the lifestyle of those who suffer from terminal clutter.”

Support this claim by presenting sensory details.

Restrictions: The place you describe must meet the following requirements

  1. The place must NOT be in your own home.
  2. It must be room sized, though not necessarily indoors. A patio, courtyard, or street corner will do. But it must small enough to be completely seen form a single vantage point. Do not attempt to describe a city, country, island, state, etc.
  3. It must be real. That is, it must be a physical place, located on Earth, within this particular space-time dimension, capable of being visited by normal human beings without the aid of drugs or astral projection. I make no judgments about whether your spiritual or psychokinetic experiences are real; I only say that I am not going. This also means I do not want essays describing the inside of your nose, eyelids, etc.

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A Writing Process for Description

Probably the hardest thing for any writer is coming up with something to say. Students always complain about this, but, surprisingly, professional writers have the same trouble. The truth is, deciding what to say is probably the hardest part of the writing process.

Classically this step has been called either “Discovery” or “Invention.” It is the first and most important of the five “canons” of classical rhetoric, the others being Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery.  (See the Classical Rhetoric file for more information about these terms.) Only the first three of these concern us in a writing class.

“Discovery” includes lots of techniques that we will be studying later, but for right now these thoughts may help:

  1. You are going to be writing an argument that does two main things
  1. Expresses a MOOD or feeling about a place. We call this a “Pathos” argument. Those Discovery techniques that apply to other kinds of argument (Logos and Ethos) will not be useful
  2. Supports the claim with sensory details (observations), rather than with other kinds of evidence such as expert testimony, contracts, laws, witnesses, etc., do not apply
  1. You are attempting to create a sensory experience for the reader. The reader cannot see, hear, feel, taste, touch, or smell the place you are describing, nor can the reader visualize spatial arrangements unless you lay them out.
  2. Your goal is to persuade the reader to accept your claim about the place you are describing, but in order to do this you must not place unwarranted burdens on the reader in terms of grammar errors, spelling errors, or punctuation errors. You should also try to avoid putting the reader to sleep with flat, dull prose.

To put it clearly, there are four elements necessary for success. Memorize them.

  • Unity—The essay must have a single rhetorical purpose, expressed in a thesis statement. Everything in the essay should work toward gaining acceptance of that statement.
  • Specificity—The essay must be rich in supporting evidence, in this case, sensory details.
  • Coherence—The essay must be clear and orderly and it must be understandable (free of confusing and distracting errors).
  • Style—The essay should use appropriate, word choice, sentence patterns and figures of speech.

To help you achieve these things in your essay, I suggest the following process:

  1. Go to the place and study it for quite some time.
  2. Apply some discovery tool. You might begin with the traditional Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions.
  3. Write a one sentence claim about the place.
  4. Make lists of experiences for each of the five senses.
  5. Choose from all these specific details those that best support you thesis.
  6. Decide on a vantage point from which to describe the place (from a chair in the corner, from a door way, from a sidewalk, etc.). This vantage point acts as a sort of camera for the reader.
  7. Select a general arrangement for the details you are going to present (front to back, left to right, clockwise, etc.).
  8. Express these details in language that is clear and forceful
  1. Avoid excessive use of passive voice.
  2. Avoid excessive use of “there is/there are” constructions.
  3. Avoid excessive use of the verb “to be,” using instead, actions verbs. Excessive use of is, are, was, were, etc., changes the descriptive into a mere list that cannot achieve its persuasive goal.
  1. Write a draft. Have a friend review it. Put it away for at least a day.
  2. Rethink and Revise the essay completely.
  3. Write a final draft, proofread it (reading out loud may help), and turn it in.
Last updated June 6, 2005