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descriptive writing

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atwood writer quotation


  • What can be seen?

    • "His ashen face looked like he had seen the horror of horrors."

  • What can be heard?

    • "A sound like a thousand crashing cymbals assaulted our ears"

  • What can be felt?

    • "The soft gooey mass clung to my by now shivering flesh"


  • What can be tasted?

    • "The taste was heavenly - like something you'd looked forward to all your life."

  • What can be smelt?

    • "The smell was indescribable; nothing this side of Hell's gates could come close."

Description is a genuinely important style of writing - but it's one that is never, in the real word, used as an end in itself. Description is instead used to support some other writing purpose, such as narration (story-telling), explanation, persuasion, argument, etc. At school, however, it's a part of your English exam - often on English Paper 2. Without doubt, it's a skill you need to master.

Effective description works because it helps a reader feel a part of the scene being described. If you look closely at how this kind of writing is created, you'll find many references to one or more of the senses such as what can be seen or heard. This is called sensory description. This use of the senses allows the reader to enter the scene more effectively by involving them directly and by evoking a more emotional response. It works because it creates imagery in the mind.

In the following brief extract you'll see how writer Bruce Chatwin achieves this. It's taken from his book, In Patagonia. Look closely at the writing to detect his methods (you'll be finding out more about these later). Notice how Chatwin gives his reader the sense that he is showing us the woman rather than merely telling us about her. This is a central aspect of effective descriptive writing: wherever possible, show, don't tell! Also, notice that the 'showing' works because of Chatwin's use of vivid and original figurative language.

She was waiting for me, a white face behind a dusty window. She smiled, her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark-auburn. Her legs were a Mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had the tatters of an extraordinary beauty.

She had been making pastry and the grey dough clung to her hands. Her blood-red nails were cracked and chipped. [p.61]

Now, your turn! Can you imagine a car journey? What might you see, touch, smell, taste and hear?

- Like a fiery red fist, the Ferrari Testarossa punched its way past our ageing Ford Fiesta...

- the open window allowed a cool spring breeze to caress my cheeks...

- an ancient jalopy of a school bus spluttered along in front of us spewing out nauseous black clouds of exhaust...

the bitter taste of the pre-trip travel sickness pill still clung to the back of my throat...

- the screeching siren of an ambulance forced us to pull in and wait till it passed...

It works, doesn't it? And you can make it work for you. You'll gain a higher grade, too, so it must be worthwhile.


Here is a good way to tackle this kind of writing:


Theme and Controlling Idea

What is it that makes any kind of reading worthwhile? We enjoy reading if what we read engages our interest; and this often happens if we can relate in some way to what we read.

How can your description be made to fit the bill? Well, most of us seem to enjoy reading about the important things in life: fear, romance, loneliness, friendship, growing up, getting old, facing problems... and most readers enjoy writing that creates a sense of excitement, tension, fear or wonder equally, and perhaps because we are rather 'nosy' or like to compare ourselves to others, we enjoy reading about interesting characters who succeed in overcoming the odds.

Writing that explores such ideas stands a good chance of being interesting to read. The technical term to describe the idea that flows through a piece of writing - often 'below the surface' - is called its theme or controlling idea. This controlling idea or theme is what the writing is really about. When you 'write to describe', you can gain more marks if your writing does more than just describe something - try to use the description to develop an underlying theme of some kind.


1. Read the question with thought and care
Seems so obvious... yet every year students lose marks for not answering the question set! Don't be one of them. As described above, decide if the topic of the question would allow you to develop an underlying message of some kind in your writing. This message then becomes your controlling idea. It can help to 'switch roles' for a moment and 'become' your own reader - putting on your 'reader's hat' is always a good thing to do when writing.

A theme based on something interesting is going to be far more sophisticated than a piece that merely describes a thing.

Read some typical questions and try to work out what kinds of 'big', interesting controlling ideas you could create writing in response to such questions. For instance, if you were asked to write about a place you remember from early childhood, your theme or controlling idea could be the much bigger idea of innocence in childhood, or security, lack of fear and so forth.

. For short exam questions, avoid storytelling!
Even though all narrative - storytelling - depends upon description to set a scene or mood, in an exam, when writing to describe, it's best to avoid writing a story. Stick to just describing!

3. Write about a past time - avoid writing about the present!
However exciting 'present tense' writing might seem it is all too easy to fall into the trap of mixing tenses - moving from present tense to past tense without realising. It's best to start and continue in the past tense - maybe remembering a real scene from your own life?

4. Describe only what is relevant to helping develop your underlying message
Recognising what to include and what to leave out in a piece of descriptive writing is vital to making it effective and worthy of a high grade.

  • By including only with what is relevant, effective description adds unity and coherence to writing. This is important because it means the reader feels instinctively that each word and sentence is leading somewhere useful (i.e. it is coherent) and leading in one important direction towards a single purpose (i.e. it is unified) .
  • Thinking of writing as akin to a woven piece of cloth can be a useful metaphor: when you read back to yourself what you have written (both as you write each sentence and afterwards during redrafting), you should ensure it is coherent and unified by pulling out any 'loose' or 'wrong' threads and making sure that the pattern you have created will be attractive to your reader.


5. Put your reader into the right frame of mind to become involved in your writing
Interest and involvement are central to a good reader response. Without it your writing will not work well. Always set a suitable mood for your scene. This mood, which must be suitable to support the purpose of your writing, will help engage and absorb your reader.

. Aim to describe 'how you felt at the time' - make the reader feel as if they are 'there'
Even though it is usually an imaginary or dramatised time in your writing, you will help your reader if you try to make them feel as you did. Using sensory description can achieve this:

Describe what you see, hear, taste, smell, feel. You probably do need adjectives to do this, but try hard to find words that do not need an adjective if you can. Choose precise vocabulary as this will be far more interesting to read. And use vivid - and preferably original - similes and metaphors: these help to etch an image into your reader's imagination.

. Avoid excessive or boring (y-a-w-n!) 'flat' description
Thinking you must describe everything, and even worse everything with an adjective or even two is a fundamental error to avoid. Far from improving your description (and grade!), the opposite will be the case. It is better to follow the advice given above and choose precise vocabulary. Excessive description fails to make writing effective and can even create what is known technically as purple prose.

8. Create a clear structure that is interesting to your reader
Aim to describe aspects of a scene in an interesting and logical order -one that seems 'natural' to your reader.

Practise by writing a few short descriptions of your own. Avoid excessive adjectives and adverbs - rather, using the above examples as 'style models', choose precise vocabulary and create vivid metaphors or similes. Show your work to your teacher or email it to Englishbiz!



The following extract is from the novel 'Hard Times' by nineteenth century writer, Charles Dickens.

Try to notice how each part of what Dickens writes helps to create a single idea. This is his controlling idea or theme. He describes nothing that does not develop this main idea. This is because, like all good writers, Dickens writes in a way that is entirely coherent and unified. His choice of words is very precise indeed. Notice too how Dickens has consciously shaped the meaning of his writing using a precisely crafted structure (work out how Dickens does this by making a list of the ideas he describes. Look at the sequence he creates and consider its effect and purpose).

'IT WAS A TOWN OF RED BRICK, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, arid vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next... .'


Finally, always check what you write as you write it!

Each year, literally thousands of students fail to achieve the marks they could. Don't be one of them ALWAYS CHECK YOUR WRITING BEFORE HANDING IN!

Read each sentence immediately after you write it
Use a variety of sentence types and styles and remember that shorter sentences are often clearer and crisper sounding. An occasional ultra-short sentence can add real impact to writing. Read each sentence before you proceed to the next to check it is fluent, accurate and complete. Does it follow on logically from the previous sentence?

Check every paragraph
A paragraph is a series of sentences (often at least five) that develop from a single topic sentence used to introduce the point of the paragraph.

Avoid creating overly short paragraphs as this suggests either a) you do not know what a paragraph is or b) that you have no explained the point of the paragraph in sufficient detail. Try to make sure that each paragraph flows naturally on from its predecessor by using the final sentence of each paragraph to subtly 'hook' into the topic of the next paragraph.

To correct a missed paragraph simply put this mark where you want in to be: // then, in your margin write: // = new paragraph. The examiner will not mark you down for this so long as you have not forgotten all of your paragraphs.

Examine each comma
A very common error and poor style is to use a comma instead of a full stop to end a sentence. This makes two or more stylish, short and crisp sentences into one long, drawn out and boring sentence! Always end each sentence with a full stop - or a semi-colon if you know how to use this punctuation mark.

Look at every apostrophe
Apostrophes are only ever used for two reasons, but many students fail to use them effectively and reduce the readability and quality of their written work.

If two words are 'squeezed together' into one and a letter is missed out in the process, you should show where this missing letter used to be by inserting an apostrophe in its place so the phrase should not becomes the single word shouldn't.

When one of two nouns belongs to the other, show which one owns which by adding apostrophe + s to its end so the school's entrance is correct because the entrance is 'possessed' by the school similarly Alan's book shows a similar 'possession' of a book by Alan. If the thing that does the possessing is a plural noun such as, for example, dogs, the a phrase such as the dogs' kennels, shows that the kennels belong to many dogs by placing the apostrophe after the final plural s.

But watch out for it's: with an apostrophe this is always a shortened form of it is or occasionally, it has, as in it's cold. But if you meant 'belonging to it', as in its fur is shiny and smooth, no apostrophe is needed.