How To Write a Solid Descriptive Essay: Unique & Practical Tips (With Examples)

, Staff Writer
Updated December 15, 2022
three tips for what to do and two tips for what not to do in a descriptive essay
    descriptive essay tips dos and don'ts
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When you stare that pie dead in its crust, you might notice all kinds of great things about it, from its color and texture to the delicious smells of cinnamon, sugar, and berries. Now if you wrote those notes down into paragraphs, you wouldn’t be too far from a full-fledged descriptive essay. Granted, descriptive essays have their little nuances and challenges, but if you have the main idea (describing something), the rest is dressing. With an extra nudge, you’ll know how to write a descriptive essay with the best of them.

Focus on All Five of Your Senses

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get started with your description, think about your five senses — sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

Most people will typically focus on the sight part with physical descriptions, but going deeper into those senses helps to ground the description and brings the reader closer to your personal experience.

For example, knowing how a pie feels against your fingers or how the crust sounds when you tap a fork against it is part of the whole experience.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid emotions, thoughts, or other creative abstractions, but it can be easy to alienate your readers if you get too heady too soon. Much like a home, start with a concrete foundation.

Use Your Description To Format Your Essay

Other essay types might have more rigid structures, but the descriptive essay isn’t one of those. It’s really the jazz of essays. You can do whatever you want with it (within reason). That can be a bit overwhelming for really any writer, but it’s okay.

If you’re feeling a little in over your head with your descriptive essay’s format, take a breath and look at how you plan to describe your subject.

  • If you’re describing a singular object, you can dedicate one body paragraph to a physical description, one paragraph to a description of its contextual environment, and one paragraph of emotional description.
  • If you’re describing a personal experience, you can go with a simple beginning, middle, end structure.
  • If you’re describing your favorite person, you could start with a basic (and not weird) physical description, a character description, and their skills and interests.

These are just some suggestions. Maybe you think describing your mom’s best basketball game is the best way to start off before getting into her descriptions of her relationship with you. Maybe you want to describe the diner before you get into describing the pie. Don’t be afraid to play around with your format as you get deeper into your description.


How Long Is a Descriptive Essay?

This is one of those questions that might be bouncing around your head. There is no set length for descriptive essays. Obviously, the length of your descriptive essay is going to depend primarily on how deep you get into your description. On average, you’re probably looking at 1,000 words for a typical five-paragraph essay.

The good news is that your instructor should tell you directly how long your essay should be. Check your assignment or syllabus, or otherwise ask your teacher about the expectations for your essay.

Describe With a Story, Not Just Adjectives

Some people hear “descriptive essay,” and they just assume it equates to a list of adjectives. Adjectives are great, and unsurprisingly, you’ll definitely use descriptors in your descriptive essay. However, don’t lean so hard on just adjectives to build a description. At best, that’ll be boring; at worst, you’ll run out of things to say really quick.

For example, if you had to describe that pie:

It was sweet. The crust was yellow. The filling was warm.

Not exactly the most enticing, right? The solution? Tell a story! Working with narrative can help to build flow within the essay, which (in practical terms) pushes the reader forward.

When I walked in, the diner was coincidentally playing one of my favorite songs on the radio. My favorite server greeted me by name, already cutting a slice of my favorite pie. The sound of the knife sinking into the crust and clicking against the pan was music to my ears. She slid the slice onto a plate and slid the plate in front of me. The crust glistened like honey, the smell of fresh berries emanating off of it like waves of heat.

You get a lot more from that: the pie as a physical object, the general atmosphere, the writer’s mood. It at least feels more all-encompassing and provides a little more weight to the concept of a description.


Feather in Figurative Language

As you get the bones of your description onto paper, start to pepper in some figurative language. That might seem unintuitive — why use creative writing when you’re trying to write a straightforward description?

This is related to the above about not just listing adjectives. The same goes for presenting writing that is totally devoid of thought or emotion. You risk sounding too robotic, like you’re just following orders or doing the bare minimum.

The pie was sweet and slightly salty. It was a good pie. I ate it very fast.

Figurative language can really inject some life, energy, and relatability into your descriptions. Granted, you don’t have to make every single sentence a metaphor, but you should make full use of similes, analogies, and other forms of figurative language throughout.

Before I even cut into the salted honey pie, I saw tiny salt crystals glistening on the pie’s surface like small jewels on some tiny planet. The first bite was pure heaven, giving the perfect amount of sweetness with a hint of salt around the edges. I ate the pie faster than a car speeding down an icy slope, but I savored every single bite.


Describe Your Subject Through Your Own Experiences

The real beauty of descriptive essays is that none of us see or experience things in the exact same way. Someone eating a pie might focus on the smell or taste, while someone else might notice the feeling of the fork cutting into the crust.

Putting those differences of perspective into words is the whole function of the descriptive essay, so don’t shy away from your own personal experience of the subject. Of course, you can use the general populace as a point of comparison or context, but your goal isn’t to appeal to other people’s descriptions.