Descriptive Essay Guide

A cornerstone of academia, essay writing often presents students with a diverse array of assignments, one of which is the descriptive essay. Unlike traditional academic essays, a descriptive piece diverges slightly, imbued with vivid language and personal anecdotes that enable readers to relive the writer’s experiences. Given its distinct nature, it’s worthwhile to delve into the specifics of this genre and offer a comprehensive guide on how to write a descriptive essay. 

What Is a Descriptive Essay?

A descriptive essay serves as a vivid canvas, painting a detailed picture of a specific subject – be it an object, emotion, place, person, situation, or even an abstract concept. The primary intent is to captivate the reader, stirring emotions that mirror those experienced by the author. The beauty of a descriptive essay lies in its limitless scope for creativity in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. The more articulate and evocative the language, the more potent the metaphors and analogies, the higher the likelihood of achieving the essay’s ultimate objective. 

Note: If you want to learn more about essays in general, we suggest you read our article on this topic: What is an essay?

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10 Potential Descriptive Essay Topics

Writing a descriptive essay challenges you to engage the reader’s senses, making it essential to focus on a singular subject. Attempting to cover a multitude of events may dilute the emotional resonance of your piece due to word count limitations. Here are ten sample topics to inspire a unique and compelling subject for your descriptive essay:

  1. Navigate through New York’s bustling streets on a bicycle. Delve into your personal feelings.
  2. Boarding a plane for the first time. Share the emotions coursing through you.
  3. Choose an object that’s integral to your life and describe it.
  4. True loyalty: Describe your best friend’s unique traits.
  5. The primal feeling of hunger in a jungle setting.
  6. Step into the shoes of a miner and describe their daily experience.
  7. A moment of quick thinking: Describe a situation requiring immediate action.
  8. A cherished locale: Describe a place you find yourself repeatedly drawn to.
  9. Public speaking: Describe the nerves and triumph of delivering a speech to a large audience.
  10. Life unplugged: Describe a lifestyle independent of public utilities and infrastructure.

Find more essay topics here – 170 Essay Topics and Ideas ⇒ Sorted by Writing Type and Level

Descriptive vs. Narrative Writing (Showing vs. Telling)

Students often conflate descriptive writing with narrative writing due to their overlapping characteristics. However, their objectives fundamentally differ. A descriptive essay aims to portray a specific subject, using rich, detailed language and evocative imagery that appeal to sensory experiences. It’s about ‘showing’ the reader through precise and vivid descriptions.

On the other hand, narrative writing seeks to tell a comprehensive story, which doesn’t necessarily need an extensive description of a subject, place, or person. It relies more on ‘telling’ words, which can often be ambiguous and open to interpretation. Narrative sentences are typically concise and potentially debatable.

In contrast, descriptive sentences are expansive and vivid and delve into intricate details to elicit specific emotions. It’s a form of writing where every word works to paint a vivid picture, immersing the reader in the writer’s world.

How to Write a Descriptive Essay (4 Main Principles)

Writing a descriptive essay is a systematic process comprised of several critical steps. Familiarity with these steps can greatly enhance the quality of your essay, potentially earning you a high grade. The four indispensable pillars of a good descriptive essay are:

  • Engaging sensory details
  • Using vibrant and figurative language
  • Having a clearly defined purpose
  • Adhering to the correct structure

Let’s look at how to write a descriptive essay in more detail.

Note: To discover more about essay writing in general, check out our ultimate essay writing guide: How to any essay in 12 simple steps.

To discover more about essay writing in general, check out our ultimate essay writing guide: How to any essay in 12 simple steps.

1: Engage all five senses

A well-written descriptive essay enables readers to share your experiences by painting a vivid mental picture. This is best achieved by leveraging sensory and figurative language, incorporating potent words that appeal to each of the five senses – sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Remember to use expressive descriptive language to enrich your text with vivid sensory details, thus captivating your reader whenever you describe anything related to these categories. 

Examples of sensory details

Synonyms can serve as invaluable tools in your quest for compelling descriptions, transforming your entire essay and influencing your reader. Ensure you confirm the meaning of any word you’re unsure about, particularly its relevance to the sense of sight, smell, sound, touch, or taste. Consider the following examples, each demonstrating sensory details:


Upon entering the room, a brilliant, golden light assailed my eyes, forcing them shut and raising my hand in defense. Once my sight adjusted, I was greeted by a stunning vista from the window – a sea of rustic red roofs and charming cobblestone streets.


Wandering through the city, a familiar aroma transported me back to my travels in France. Upon a second inhalation, I recognized it – the irresistible scent of fresh, butter-topped croissants.


As he cycled through the forest, an enchanting melody caused him to cease pedaling. The sound was harmonious, flitting in and out of his hearing with a variety of notes. Its origin was unknown, but it was music to his ears. 


Drawn to her lawn, she tentatively reached out to the neatly trimmed grass. It pricked her palms like countless tiny needles, a sensation she reveled in. Surrendering to the moment, she reclined on the lawn, letting the grass tickle her neck, legs, and back.


Upon my first bite at a local pizzeria, the dough dissolved in my mouth, blending flavors of dor blue, cheddar, and parmesan with hints of basil and tomato sauce. A subtle undertone of smoked garlic amplified the overall taste, rendering the pizza irresistible and transporting me to a state of culinary bliss.

2: Use descriptive language

When writing a descriptive essay or describing any subject, the judicious use of vibrant vocabulary is crucial to intensify emotions, embellish images, and enrich personal anecdotes. As all good descriptive writing hinges on a potent lexicon and detailed descriptions, don’t hesitate to extend your sentences for greater impact. For instance, instead of writing, “She wasn’t in a good mood for several reasons,” you could illustrate her emotional state. The former sentence lacks detail, while a more descriptive approach might be:

An array of unfortunate events cast a shadow of melancholy over her day. A spat with a friend, overcooked muffins, and ruined freshly manicured nails had all contributed to her distress.

Consider another example of vague language: “The car was slow.” This statement leaves the reader questioning why the car was slow. Was it engine trouble, gearbox issues, worn-out tires, or the vehicle’s age? Also, it fails to evoke any emotion, leaving the reader indifferent. By providing sufficient details and sharp phrasing, you can enhance the sentence. Incorporating metaphors, similes, and comparisons can also bolster your language. For example: 

The car’s engine struggled against the congested streets, succumbing to overheating and drastically reducing the vehicle’s speed.

Even a slight embellishment can transform a sentence, rendering it more engaging, evocative, and relatable. 

3: Establish the purpose 

Every element you aim to describe in your essay should serve a specific purpose. Creating a descriptive essay without a central idea is futile. A good thesis statement itself is essential as it establishes the main point your descriptive essay will expand upon. For instance, if you’re describing your summer house where you frequently spend time, you might portray it as a tranquil sanctuary where you can unwind and enjoy solitude.

Alternatively, you can depict your house as a haven free of noise and distractions, where you find the best inspiration for your book. Simply listing its size, rooms, and floors won’t engage the reader. Always remember the purpose of your descriptive essay and aim to leave a lasting impression.

Examples of Descriptive Essay Thesis Statements

Typically, a thesis statement is the concluding sentence of your introduction. When crafting a descriptive thesis statement, ensure it’s neither too broad nor too specific. It should outline the key points you’ll explore further. Consider these examples:

  1. My bicycle holds a special place in my heart, as it allows me to connect with life’s rhythm and experience exhilarating emotions that fuel my mornings.
  2. Every year, I adhere to the same three-day itinerary, a self-imposed challenge that reignites the powerful emotions I experienced years ago.
  3. My friend’s defining traits – his eccentricity, perpetual motion, and relentless social interaction – set him apart.

4: Organize the essay well

Like any other written assignment, a descriptive essay must be well-structured. Jumping sporadically between contrasting elements or haphazardly presenting examples will only confuse your reader. Ensure you outline your ideas and exhaustively elaborate on them before moving on. For example, describing the exterior features of your house, then your experience living in it, and then returning to discuss its windows and balcony is not advisable. 

Note: We have a separate guide on outlining with examples; we suggest you check it out to know more about the topic: How to write an outline for an essay.

Sentence structure

It’s essential to understand sentence structure when writing a descriptive essay. Aim for sentence diversity to create engaging content. While English typically follows a Subject-Verb-Object pattern, other structures can add variety and make your essay more dynamic. For example:

He passed all the exams. He came back home, packed his stuff, and went to the bus station. He planned to go to the coast. 

While these sentences are grammatically correct, they lack emotional engagement. Varying sentence structures, combining them, using cleft sentences and fronting can make your descriptive writing more vibrant. Consider this revision:

Having passed all his exams, he was filled with delight and anticipation. He quickened his pace, returned home, hastily packed his clothes, and hurried to the bus station, ready to embark on his first grand adventure.

Paragraph order

Descriptive essays typically comprise an introduction, body, and conclusion. Each section has unique elements that help clarify and develop the content.


The introduction is the first paragraph of a descriptive essay. Its primary goal is to introduce the topic to the reader and provide the necessary background information, setting, place, and dominant impression, also known as a thesis statement. An opening sentence kicks off a descriptive essay and grabs the reader’s attention. It can manifest in the form of an anecdote, fact, shocking statement, misconception, etc.  

Central Part (Body)

The body’s purpose is to expand upon the points mentioned in your thesis. You may have two to three body paragraphs depending on your essay’s length. Ensure the details provided are relevant to your descriptive essay introduction and avoid unnecessary information that may clutter your writing. Decide on the organization of your body paragraphs beforehand. You can choose from:

  • Spatial order: This strategy ensures precise descriptions. For example, you can start from top to bottom or outside to inside when describing a house.
  • Chronological order: This method ensures logical progression and avoids digressions.
  • Least-to-most or most-to-least order: This strategy is often used when describing senses. For example, the smell of a croissant may intensify as you approach the bakery (least-to-most order), or the brightest car lights may initially draw attention (most-to-least order).

The conclusion wraps up your essay, restates your thesis or dominant impression, and reflects on the significance of your subject.

With these four principles mastered, you will understand how to write a descriptive essay much better.

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Descriptive Essay Example Break Down

We took a descriptive essay example by BYU – Brazilian Political Figure: Getúlio Vergas – and evaluated it by this rubric – Rubric for Expressive/Descriptive Writing.

Ideas: 3 – Very Good

The essay effectively paints a clear picture of Getúlio Vargas’s life and his influence on Brazil, with a good focus on the topic. The ideas are well-supported with interesting details and historical context, though more vivid descriptions could enhance the reader’s understanding at times.

Organization: 3 – Very Good

The essay is generally well-focused, with a logical progression from Vargas’s early life, through his political career, to his death. Transitions between topics could be clearer in some places, but the essay is easy to follow overall.

Introduction: 3 – Very Good

The introductory paragraph states the subject of the essay and provides context, but it could be more inviting to the reader. The hook could be stronger to more effectively capture the reader’s attention.

Sensory Detail: 2 – Satisfactory

The paper includes some details that appeal to the senses, but more could be done in this area. Most of the details are factual and historical, which do not necessarily appeal to the senses.

Figurative Language: 2 – Satisfactory

The essay uses some metaphors (such as the “Father of the Poor”) but could benefit from more consistent use of figurative language to enhance the descriptive nature of the essay.

Sentence Fluency: 3 – Very Good

The writer uses complete sentences with some variety in sentence structures. Some instances of repetitiveness could be improved for better fluency.

Conventions: 3 – Very Good

There are a few grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization errors. However, some sentences could be constructed more effectively for better readability.

Voice: 3 – Very Good

The essay’s voice is clear and fits the topic. It seems suited for the audience and purpose but could be more engaging in places.

Word Choice: 3 – Very Good

The paper uses fairly precise and interesting word choices, but there are some places where wording could be more specific or more varied to engage the reader better.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I include dialogue in a descriptive essay?

Absolutely. Dialogue is a fantastic tool for engaging readers and enhancing your narrative. You can incorporate dialogue at the start of your descriptive essay or intersperse it throughout to add depth and interest. However, remember to align it with the organizational structure of your essay (spatial, chronological, or least-to-most/most-to-least).

Is it appropriate to use the first person in a descriptive essay?

Yes, you can use personal pronouns in a descriptive essay. Whether you use a first, second, or third person can depend on the subject matter of your essay. If you’re describing a situation that you personally observed or experienced, it’s entirely appropriate to write from your perspective. Otherwise, you can choose the point of view that best suits your topic.

What is the main purpose of a descriptive essay?

A descriptive essay’s primary goal is to vividly depict a specific subject, whether tangible or abstract. The writer provides a detailed description using rich, sensory language that appeals to the reader’s five senses (taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight). This enables the reader to fully imagine the object, smell the aroma, hear the sound, taste the food, or experience the described event or situation. 

Can I include personal opinions in my descriptive essay?

Yes, personal opinions can be included in a descriptive essay. However, it’s important to remember that the main goal of a descriptive essay is to describe a subject in detail and create a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Your personal opinion or feelings about the subject can certainly enhance your descriptions, but they should not detract from the objective of the essay. Make sure your opinions are presented in a way that contributes to the overall description and doesn’t come off as biased or overly subjective.


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