Essential Writing Types 101: Descriptive Writing

Foreword:


Writing entertains, informs, persuades, explains, clarifies, and gives the author an avenue for creative and intelligent expression. Writers always have a purpose or goal, which dictates the style a writer must use when approaching composition. Essential Writing Types 101 aims to educate readers on six types one will encounter throughout their academic and professional writing careers. Each chapter will outline textual examples associated with the style and describe the characteristics that make these writing styles distinct. Due to the diversity of rhetorical contexts and audiences, understanding each writing style and the relationship between the purpose and its communicative function will facilitate more effective writers and communicators.


The following is divided into six main chapters:

  1. Descriptive Writing

  2. Narrative Writing

  3. Expository Writing

  4. Persuasive Writing

  5. Technical & Scientific Writing

  6. Expressive & Poetic writing

Essential Writing Genres 101: Descriptive Writing

The first chapter of the Essential Writing Types 101 series will first highlight descriptive writing, as this is one of the first types of writing introduced to students at the secondary education level. Writing is unique in that it is both an art and a science. There is a science behind composition, organization, and document design. Researchers can measure audience responses to mechanics and document design such as sentence lengths, line spacing, and typography. Yet, there is also an art to effective writing, which demands consistent refinement, practice, and a reestablished appreciation for language arts. Francis L. Fennell (1975), the department chair of English at the University of Chicago, wrote on the art of writing: "Painting, poetry, sculpture, and even such bodily arts as gymnastics or the dance-each is acquired step by step, one skill complementing another, the technique constantly refined by practice" (p. 177). Being familiar with and using each type of writing is one technique that writers must know to make their writing more effective in various communicative contexts.


Furthermore, descriptive writing is an essential foundational block to writing, as it encourages writers to be more observant of the world and use written language to express their observations. Merriam Webster defines description as: “A statement or account giving the characteristics of someone or something” (2022). Apt usage of words will create pictures in the reader’s mind without the need for visuals and, in other cases, accompanies a visual to explain and provide relevant context. Therefore, the Essential Writing Styles 101 series will define descriptive writing, its characteristics, textual examples, and the circumstances in which writers should employ descriptive writing in their compositions.

Figure 1: The Rotarian. Guidone, J. 2019.

First, while narrative writing will be explained in more detail in the second part of this series, it is nonetheless imperative to clarify the difference between description and narration. Oftentimes, narrative and descriptive writing are used simultaneously, and in fact, descriptive writing can be used concurrently with other writing styles as well for a more effective piece of text. Cannon Schmitt (2016), a professor of English at the University of Toronto, uses György Lukács’s (1936) ideas of narration versus description:

Narration admits of no filler. Description, by contrast, is all filler. Novelists describe when they enumerate the details of a world in which those details do not finally matter. Description treats as a mere backdrop or setting that which, in narration, would be freighted with consequentiality. As a result, description amounts to nothing more than a kind of ‘still life’ (as cited in Schmitt, p. 104).

Indeed, the context of Lukács’s argument presented by Schmitt negatively criticizes a novel that has all descriptions without active narration. However, the term ‘still life’ is quite an agreeable definition for the function of descriptive writing because a description will focus on one thing, person, or situation. A travel guide promoting a luxurious island getaway, for example, will have a detailed description of the tart, citrus cocktails, the salt-scented breeze, and the delicate lull of waves on the sand heard through a premium condo window. This type of writing does not smoothly transition from one scene to the next, but rather focuses on one aspect of something and makes a reader experience it through written language. Though Lukács criticizes the overuse of descriptive writing, for the sake of this essay, it is neither good nor bad, but merely a necessary part of writing that serves a purpose that will be described further.

Figure 2: Narratives such as short stories routinely utilize descriptive writing. How to Write a Short Story. Gil, R. 2021.

Additionally, descriptive writing begins in secondary school English education as a necessary building block for young writers as a first language and as a foreign language. Abdul Muth’im & Norhasanah (2019), professors in English education and linguistics at the Universitas Lambung Mangkurat Banjarmasin in Indonesia, explain the role of descriptive writing in a study of thirty Junior High School students studying English: “Teaching writing on descriptive text to junior high school students is necessary to construct students’ English competence” (p. 259), and therefore, “can activate the socio-cognitive schemata (background knowledge) of the students in the steps and language involved in the process” (p. 260). Although Muth’im & Norhasanah are referencing English learning in the context of it as a second language, first-language learners are taught by similar standards. After all, even native speakers must practice their language to describe their ideas or concepts well enough to be understood by others. Muth’im & Norhasanah (2019) use this descriptive writing exercise as an example: “The text can be about booking a ticket. The students are supposed to be able to call a travel agent, mention how many tickets they are willing to order, decide the schedule, choose the airline, pay the ticket, receive the invoice and say thank you for the booking” (p. 260). This type of writing exercise requires the exercise of a wide range of vocabulary, organization, and grammar.

Figure 3: Which? Money Magazine. Navigating Power of Attorney. Nye, A. 2020.

Thus, given that descriptive writing utilizes observations taken by the five senses, it is common to express those observations in descriptive writing when relevant. Carellin Brooks (2020), a professor in scholarly writing and communication at The University of British Columbia, details the elements of a descriptive paragraph:

A descriptive paragraph provides a vibrant experience for the reader through vivid language and descriptions of something. Unlike narrative paragraphs, which must include personal thoughts, feelings, and growth, descriptive paragraphs do not need to be personal in nature. Instead, descriptive paragraphs must focus on vividly and objectively describing something to the reader (Descriptive Paragraphs section, para. 1).

Thus, descriptive writing requires the use of figurative language. Figurative language includes personification, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, alliteration, similies, idioms, and metaphors. While the use of figurative language varies on the circumstances in which a text is written, at least one of these figurative elements in descriptive writing can aid in conveying a more compelling message. Brooks provides two sentence examples. The former employs simple language, while the second is descriptive:

Sentence 1: The tree was tall and green. Sentence 2: The soft and damp pink flowers of the dogwood tree smelled sweet in the cool spring air as the wind whistled through its yellow-green leaves (Descriptive Paragraphs section, para. 2).
Figure 4: Descriptive writing invokes powerful imagery. Tigrelab. Mora, R. 2020.

The second sentence provides a more transparent illustration of the environment for the reader by detailing the type of tree, the scent, and the feeling of the air. Not only does the sentence describe the tree, but the language captures the tranquility of spring. It matters little that an individual reader envisions the exact same tree in the author’s mind since what matters is that the reader comprehends the meaning and experience facilitated by using descriptive writing. To elucidate further, when practicing descriptive writing, Allen Deever (2015), a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, developed a writing formula to assist writers in composing their descriptions. The following example is the first step a writer should take in order to approach applying descriptive writing and resolve writer’s block:


"Step one: After you have seen the scene in your mind’s eye, attempt to describe your scene in three single words…list the three best words that paint a picture of that scene.

Yosemite Valley Example:

  • Monochrome

  • Dramatic

  • Polished

In case you can’t think of three good words to paint a picture of your scene, the following formula can help you to fill in the missing blanks. First off, ask yourself, ‘What one word sums up the sight or the place?’ or two other ways of putting it would be this, ‘What one word describes what I see most of all?’ or ‘What one thing in my scene is most prominent?’" (p. 2).


Not only does this exercise generate ideas to get started in descriptive writing, but it also provides writers with a tool to stimulate their ideas and generate vocabulary that complements the subject matter.

Figure 5: The Creative House. de Santis, A. 2016.

Moreover, while descriptive writing involves language that designs a picture in the mind of a reader, including actual visuals to complement descriptive writing texts has normalized due to technology. There need not be long bodies of descriptive text alone since technology influenced the inclusion of other types of visual stimulation to complement it. Diana George (2002), a professor of rhetoric and the director of the Virginia Tech Writing Center, predicted the strong influence of visuals when writing online:

For students who have grown up in a technology-saturated and an image-rich culture, questions of communication and composition absolutely will include the visual, not as attendant to the verbal but as complex communication intricately related to the world around them (p. 32).
Figure 6: Technology has transformed communication mediums and methods. Imagination while reading. Somewan. 2019.

Descriptive writing will thus not merely invoke images for the reader but will be used to enhance and explain the visuals throughout the piece. For instance, one often calls the accompanying text underneath or next to a photograph, artwork, or video a ‘description’. The description provides a ‘still life’, as aforementioned by György Lukács, explanation of a video or artwork in the context of its creation. While a video is in motion, the description of itself gives a still-life explanation of the artistic vision, background information, and possibly, a call to action.


Contrarily, while descriptive writing paints a vivid picture for the reader, that does not mean that the descriptive must always solicit the exact image of an author. Two people gazing at the same picture, or reading the same novel, may take away slightly different analyses because of the schema of each individual. Michael Riffaterre (1981), an influential French literary critic and theorist, remarked on the function of descriptive writing in the context of literature:

The primary function of literary description is not to make the reader see something. Its aim is not to present external reality. Description, like all literary discourse, is a verbal detour so contrived that the reader understands something else than the object ostensibly represented. Its primary purpose is not to offer a representation, but to indicate an interpretation (p. 125).

In other words, it is paramount that writers use descriptive writing to inspire the most beneficial interpretation of the text, especially in narrative and expressive texts. However, the genre also has its place in scientific and technical documents in specific situations.

Figure 7: News. Domínguez, P. 2021.

For example, if a scientist or theorist makes scientific observations, curates a hypothesis, and aims to justify a theory, it is imperative they use descriptive writing to explain the concept to others in the scientific community and the public. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (2003), a doctoral professor in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, uses Charles Darwin’s observations of nature and descriptive texts as an example of descriptive foundations in evolutionary theory:

Now while it is common to speak laudingly of the keenness and scope of Darwin’s observations, it is not commonly recognized, certainly not explicitly, that his observations, as written, describe his experiences … Darwin’s descriptive writings are of fundamental significance, for it is these descriptive writings that ground his theory, that are its foundation (p. 20).

Clearly, descriptive writings have significance in the scientific community, and using more creative figurative writing elements, such as analogies, can convey a highly complicated concept to readers. For example, a health professional wishes to describe an auto-immune disease to a patient who is unfamiliar with the definition and needs to understand it in terms they can recognize. Cleveland Clinic (2022), a nonprofit American academic medical center based in Cleveland, Ohio, uses this analogy on their website highlighting autoimmune disorders: "Imagine that your body is a castle and your immune system is your army fighting off invaders like bacteria. If your army malfunctions and attacks the castle, you may have lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and/or psoriasis, among a hundred other autoimmune diseases" (Autoimmune Diseases section).

Figure 8: The "evolution" of writing Anonymous. Unknown. (n.d.).

Yet, there are more practical uses for descriptive writing, as demanded by application processes for universities, jobs, and scholarships. Lena Barrantes from Universidad Nacional, and Cinthya Olivares, from the National University of Costa Rica (2010) are education researchers who advocate for descriptive writing techniques for EFL in Cota Rican schools. Their study concluded that: "Teaching students how to write descriptive paragraphs will enable them to succeed in common tasks such as filling in application forms for jobs, writing e-mails, writing letters, etc” (p. 76). The consistent theme of writing strategies and teaching writing are valuable for both native speakers and EFL speakers. When one applies for a job, a majority request a cover letter for an applicant to describe their career goals, relevant experience, and skills to stand out amongst other applicants before the next stage in the interview process. Scholarships demand students to describe their study plan and reason for funding, though they also apply persuasive writing elements for funders. In the workplace, an e-mail's content should describe specific information to clients and coworkers. These real-life implications outside of academia solidify descriptive writing as an essential writing genre.

Figure 9: Floral Anatomy. PRRINT. (n.d.).

In conclusion, descriptive writing is an essential writing genre due to its practical applications and the need for description in creative works, academia, and articles. Any idea, situation, or story requires some amount of detail. Understanding how to appeal to the senses and depict something to increase reader comprehension is vital. Gaining competency in deciphering which writing genre to use also reinforces rhetorical strategies that each writer must consider when they write. Anne Ruggles Gere (2019), a professor at the University of Michigan, concurs that the flexibility of utilizing writing genres and adapting to new rhetorical contexts makes for a more effective writer:

The writer who knows how to consider the needs of a given audience, to identify features of various genres, to strategically use the various conventions of written English, and to call on and use advice from other writers for revising will be better able to write effectively in new contexts (p. 185).

Naturally, since language, communicative methods, and contexts are always in flux, writers should learn which genre to apply in their writing. The function of the descriptive writing style is to take a screenshot of a subject and make sure the reader understands every aspect of it as much as the author does.

Bibliographical References

Barrantes, L., & Olivares, C. (2010). USEWRITE: Useful Writing Techniques to Improve High-School Students`Descriptive Writing. LETRAS 1(47), ISSN: 1409-424X. 59-82. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279685237_USEWRITE_Useful_Writing_Techniques_to_Improve_High-School_StudentsDescriptive_Writing


Brooks, C. (2020). Building Blocks of Academic Writing. Victoria, B.C.: BCcampus. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/buildingblocks/ . CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence


Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Autoimmune Diseases: Causes, Symptoms, What Is It & Treatment. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21624-autoimmune-diseases


Deever, A. (2015). Description writing formula. pp. 1-7. 10.13140/RG.2.1.4583.5606. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285589883_Description_Writing_Formula


Fennell, F. L. (1975). Writing as art. College Composition and Communication, 26(2), 177–182. https://doi.org/10.2307/357112


George, D. (2002). From Analysis to design: visual communication in the teaching of writing. College Composition and Communication, 54(1), 11–39. https://doi.org/10.2307/1512100


Gere, A. R. (Ed.). (2019). Introduction to section four. In developing writers in higher education: a longitudinal study (pp. 185–192). University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvdjrpt3.14


Merriam Webster. (2022). description. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/description


Muth’im, A., & Norhasanah. (2018). Four square writing method as a technique to teach descriptive writing. JEELS (Journal of English Education and Linguistics Studies), 5(2), 259–277. https://doi.org/10.30762/jeels.v5i2.580 Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331324640_FOUR_SQUARE_WRITING_METHOD_AS_A_TECHNIQUE_TO_TEACH_DESCRIPTIVE_WRITING


Riffaterre, M. (1981). Descriptive imagery. Yale French Studies, 61, 107–125. https://doi.org/10.2307/2929879


Schmitt, C. (2016). Interpret or describe? Representations, 135, 102–118. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26420568


Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2003). Descriptive foundations. Irish Pages, 2(1), 17–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30057239


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Guidone, J. (2019). The Rotarian [Illustration]. Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/84168971/The-Rotarian?tracking_source=search_projects%7Cwriter


Figure 2: Gil, R. (2021). How to Write a Short Story [Illustration]. Dribbble. https://dribbble.com/shots/15854755/attachments/7676080?mode=media


Figure 3: Nye, A. (2020). Which? Money Magazine – Navigating Power of Attorney [Illustration]. Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/99633287/Which-Money-Magazine-Navigating-Power-of-Attorney?tracking_source=search_projects%7Cwriting%20imagery


Figure 4: Mora, R. (2020). Tigrelab [Illustration]. Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/106423285/Tigrelab/modules/610531185


Figure 5: de Santis, A. (2016). The Creative House [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/41868503/Creative-House?tracking_source=search_projects%7Creading


Figure 6: Somewan. (2019). Imagination while reading [Illustration]. Makersplace. https://makersplace.com/somewan/imagination-while-reading-1-of-50-5165/


Figure 7: Domínguez, P. (2021). News [Illustration]. Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/127530803/News


Figure 8: Anonymous. (n.d.). Unknown. [Photograph]. Mishpacha. https://mishpacha.com/history-of-the-keyboard/


Figure 9: PRRINT. (n.d.). Floral Anatomy [Illustration]. Demilked. https://www.demilked.com/floral-anatomy-illustrations-old-book-pages-prrint/


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