Almost all English exams require students to do ‘Descriptive Writing’ at some point, and on most exams that I teach this is the highest marked question on the paper – worth up to 50% of the paper as a whole. But what exactly is it? And can it really be taught?
There’s a common belief – among teachers and students alike – that either you’re good at creative writing, or you aren’t. Tons of people think it can’t be taught, and that it’s just a natural talent. Personally, I strongly disagree with this and I absolutely think it’s something that should be taught properly and in a way that encourages students to enjoy and learn along the way, rather than feeling that they just aren’t creative or they just don’t get it.
This page will give you an introduction to the basic ideas of descriptive writing, and go through everything you need to know to get started with creating an excellent descriptive piece.
WHAT IS DESCRIPTIVE WRITING?
Well, it is a form of creative writing. But at the same time, it is NOT a story. Be careful!
The main purpose of descriptive essays is to describe something (a place, person, object, emotion, situation), so that you create an image, or a picture in the reader’s mind, of what you are writing about.
The key thing with descriptive writing is that you need to create/bring to life an image inside the head of your reader rather than give them a cold factual account of the thing being described.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
This is a crucial rule for any kind of creative writing. I’ll give you some examples below, so you can see the difference.
Tell – Describe literally what something is:
“The woman was sad.”
“I was late.”
“The boy was angry.”
Show – Get the reader to figure it out for themselves:
“A tear shimmered in her eye.”
“It was five past twelve. Darn it.”
“Scrunching up his face into a tight, mean little ball, the boy turned bright red and shook with rage.”
Hopefully can see how those second examples, modified from the first, are instantly more interesting and engaging.
HOW DO I WRITE A DESCRIPTIVE PIECE?
Firstly, remember the purpose: transport your reader to a time/place, or make a person/object feel so real that it seems as though it could be right in front of the reader.
Then, consider the following:
- Mood, tone, atmosphere
- Language features – simile, metaphor, repetition, alliteration etc
- Structural features – sentences, punctation, tone, pace etc
Then, plan your answer. You might use around 5-6 paragraphs for the average 45 min – 1hr long written answer. Your plan needs to have the following:
- Multiple focal points – one focus per paragraph
- Shifts in mood/tone
- Not much action
- No development of characters (but clearly defined characters if relevant to the question)
- A clear, logical opening and ending
- Something surprising or unusual, if possible
Then, you want to write the piece! Make sure you have time left over to check your answer. If you’re aiming for high grades, you’ll also want to include the following:
- 5 types of imagery
- Lots of interesting, complex words and phrases
Here’s an example of a Descriptive Writing Piece so you can get an idea of what this post was actually about.