Descriptive writing describes someone or something or a place, and may include action, such as what happens in a special ceremony. Often, a mood or atmosphere is created too, so that the audience feels what the writer feels about the subject. For example, if you are describing a person, the description reveals whether you love, or hate, or despise, or admire the person.

Your choice of subject to describe, and knowing some descriptive words to do it, are most important. You need to be very familiar with the topic, and you need to know some relevant, interesting or appropriate descriptive words and imagery. Take care to focus closely on the subject of your description, and give interesting details to make it come alive in the mind of the reader. (In an examination report, markers said some candidates lost marks because they wandered off topic.)

Some descriptive essay topics are:

  • My Christmas/birthday/ gifts
  • Mandela Day/Heritage Day/ Mother’s Day etc. How do you spend this day?
  • A thunderstorm/hailstorm/snowstorm I’ll never forget
  • Happy times with my family/friends
  • Our puppy/pet
  • My dream house /outfit/holiday/date/car etc.
  • Visual: Exam papers often give a picture/s that can be used as a stimulus for a descriptive (or other type of) essay. In this case, do not just say what is in the picture. You must use interesting language to bring the picture alive in some way. There must be a clear link between the picture and what you write.
  • What are some of the features of a descriptive essay?

    Here are points to note about such an essay:

  • Show that you have closely observed or noticed by giving interesting, accurate, and some unique, details.
  • Include sensory details. These are descriptions (if relevant) of how the thing or place looks, sounds, smells, feels and tastes. Think about shapes, colours, brightness, shadow and light and dark, general and specific sounds, textures, scents and odours.
  • Describe feelings and actions inspired by what you are writing about.
  • If it is about an event or a day, describe what people wear and do in that specific setting, and their emotions.
  • Make careful and interesting word choices, including adverbs and adjectives.
  • Use figurative language such as metaphors or similes. Don’t use tired old figurative clichés like ‘as blue as the sky’. Choose words with the connotations you want, rather than just their denotative (dictionary-type meaning), for example ‘bulky’ rather than plain ‘big’.
  • Use sentences of different lengths for interest, and devices such as short strings of adjectives (bubbly, bouncy, wriggly ball of fluff) or ‘sound words’ (onomatopoeia) such as ‘kapow!’
  • How to plan a descriptive essay

    Check on the length of essay required for your grade. Most essays are about 250 words and have 3 – 8 paragraphs.

    Use process writing. That means you always try to follow these recommended steps, even in the examinations:

  • Planning/Pre-writing (e.g. use a mind map)
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Presenting a final draft
  • You could plan a descriptive essay like this:

    Opening paragraph: This should hook the reader with something unusual or dramatic, and introduce the topic or subject of the description.

    Middle paragraphs: Give details about different aspects or parts of the topic.

    Closing paragraph: Round off and conclude by giving a view on the topic. This could be personal, or a general observation.

    Should you choose a descriptive essay in an exam?

    A descriptive essay may be a suitable choice in an exam because you do not need to think of a plot (narrative) or figure out and present a logical argument (argumentative) or have views about something (reflective). However, you should only attempt it if you know something about the topic and know a good number of suitable descriptive words or phrases to use. You should be able to come up with some fresh, interesting figurative language to do with the topic too, avoiding clichés.