WHAT IS A DESCRIPTIVE TEXT?
A descriptive text usually describes a single location, object, event, person, or place. It endeavors to engage all five of the reader’s senses to evoke the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the text’s subject.
As with all writing genres, we can guide our students on how to best organize and structure a descriptive text effectively.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how to choose a topic for a descriptive text, prepare an outline, and ultimately produce a well-written descriptive text.
Let’s get started!
THE STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT DESCRIPTIVE TEXT
STEP #1 SELECT A TOPIC
Generally, descriptive texts are narrow in focus. This allows for an in-depth exploration of the subject. If ever the old adage show, don’t tell applied to a writing genre, descriptive texts are it.
Whether you are choosing a topic for your students, or they are choosing what to write about themselves, be sure the topic is something that can sustain their interest, as well as the reader’s interest.
Descriptive essays require the writer to go into great depth to evoke the person, place, or thing. If the writer doesn’t care about the topic, then for sure the reader won’t either.
A good starting point for many students is to ask them to write about something that is very personal to them. For example, childhood memories, embarrassing moments, or a favorite holiday make good topics.
As the purpose of a descriptive text is to describe something so vividly, and to express emotion so clearly, that the reader can feel it too, personal topics can provide the perfect material for this type of essay.
It is easier for us to describe those things we have intimate knowledge of. This is why memories make such rich fodder for this type of essay.
We can think back to what things looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like, and felt like. We can reconjure in our mind’s eye what it was like to experience that memory at the time, making it easier for us to recreate it again in the minds of our readers.
It is worth investing some time to select a suitable topic for a descriptive text. A well-chosen topic can go a long way to kick-starting some good writing by your students.
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STEP #2 WRITE A THESIS STATEMENT
The purpose of a descriptive essay is also to inform the reader on a particular topic, event, or experience.
However, some topics are extremely broad and without setting out a clear focus for their writing, there is a danger that students writing can veer off course as they scramble to share with the reader everything they know about their chosen topic.
To avoid this, it is essential that students narrow down which aspects of their selected topic their essay will concern itself with. An effective means of doing this is by writing a thesis statement.
The thesis statement lays out the specific purpose of the text and usually it is embedded in the introductory paragraph.
While it can be difficult at times for students to define their thesis statement for a descriptive text, the following process should help guide students:
- Choose an interesting topic
- Reflect on what you think about this topic
- Consider the reasons for your point of view
- Compose a statement that encapsulates this viewpoint.
Following the process above will help students to write a thesis statement that performs the two defining tasks of a thesis statement, namely:
i. To define the topic
ii. To state a viewpoint.
While the thesis statement in a descriptive essay is not as central as in, say, a persuasive essay, it still serves the important function of orienting the reader while providing the writer with a clear focus for their energies.
STEP #3 EVOKE THE SUBJECT’S ESSENCE
The clue is the title! To evoke the subject in the minds of the readers, your students will need to drill down into the essence of the thing itself.
So, how can we convey this essence in the printed word?
We experience the world around us through our senses and it is through the use of sensory language that our students will evoke the essence of the thing they are writing about.
To help your students do this, have them create a five-column table on a sheet of paper.
Each column will be labelled with the name of one of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Students will then brainstorm the various feelings and sensations they associate with their essay’s topic, and they’ll then list their ideas in the appropriate column on the sheet of paper.
While, for the most part, descriptive texts are nonfiction texts, there is still plenty of room here for students to exercise their creative faculties.
Encourage students to employ literary devices such as simile, metaphor, and personification to bring their sensory descriptions to life. This can also be a great opportunity to reinforce student understanding of the various literary devices themselves.
You can also encourage students to use a thesaurus to uncover suitable and interesting adjectives to help them evoke the essence of the thing itself.
Not only will this help them to produce a well-written descriptive text, but it will give them the opportunity to enhance their vocabulary as they work.
As students fill out the various details they have selected, remind students it’s important to always refer back to their thesis statement.
Remember, every point a student makes in their essay should be in support of their thesis statement.
STEP #4 CREATE AN OUTLINE
Now that your students have selected an engaging topic, produced a solid thesis statement, and gathered together lots of relevant sensory detail, they’ll need to create a clear outline to organize and inform the writing process.
As with many types of essays, the standard five-paragraph essay structure will serve well here. This structure works as follows:
Paragraph 1: The opening paragraph introduces the main topic viewpoint of the essay. This will usually include a thesis statement.
Paragraphs 2,3, & 4: These are considered the body paragraphs of the essay, with each paragraph exploring one of the supporting arguments that prove the thesis statement. More body paragraphs may be added as needed.
Paragraph 5: The purpose of the conclusion paragraph is to restate the thesis statement, summarize the various points made in the essay itself, and to leave the reader with something to think about.
This standard format provides a helpful template for students to outline their descriptive text before writing. It will help ensure their writing stays focused and moves forward in a coherent manner.
STEP #5 WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!
By this stage, students have laid more than enough groundwork to get started writing in earnest.
While they should refer closely to the prep work they have done already, students should also be encouraged to let things flow too.
Writing is as much art as it is science. Having a clear, disciplined structure in place from the previous steps will allow students the freedom to take chances and get creative in their writing.
Sometimes students at this stage find it difficult to let go in their writing. They want things to be perfect the first time round.
Remind them that they shouldn’t be afraid to write less than perfect sentences in their first drafts. Getting their ideas on paper is the most important thing at this stage. They can always edit and rewrite later.
It’s important that students understand that good descriptive writing is not only filled with physical details, but includes emotional content too. Encourage your students to include the emotional significance of memories and events, people and places, too. This brings meaning to a text.
While they do this, remind them again that it is important to show rather than tell.
For example, rather than say The man was old, say something along the lines of, The man’s face was wrinkled with age.
While the first sentence makes a statement about the man’s age that tells the reader their age, the second shows the effect of age on the man’s looks.
Good descriptive writing needs to be specific, evocative, and believable.
Encourage students to be specific in the details they choose to share with the reader. The more specific they are, the easier it will be for the reader to see things in their mind’s eye.
To write evocatively, students will need to add some personal input into their writing. They must choose their language carefully to evoke a response in the reader. This is achieved by considering carefully the impression the word choice and sentence order creates, as well as how they frame the subject in their writing.
To ensure that writing is believable, students should be careful not to exaggerate or let their imagination run away with itself! While descriptive writing employs literary devices and draws on a writer’s creativity, it is not the place for fantastical hyperbole or over-flowery writing.
By bringing discipline to bear on the creative process, students will avoid their writing degenerating into mere word vomit.
STEP #6 Redraft, Edit, Proofread
For many students, this step is their least favorite. After reaching the required word count, many students are halfway out the door before the clack of the last keypress has died away.
But, this stage is crucial if students are to satisfactorily produce well-written descriptive essays. Encourage students to maintain focus as they redraft, edit, and proofread their writing.
Reviewing a finished draft is best done with the perspective of a little time. Where possible, encourage students to let a draft marinate overnight before tackling it. Masterpieces aren’t born fully formed into the world. They are moulded and crafted over time.
Where the student doesn’t have the luxury of leaving the piece overnight, perhaps they can go for a walk, or work on another task for a while, before returning to edit the piece. Any type of break away from the text will bring some freshness to their perspective.
When students are ready to review their work, instruct them that it is good policy to take a minimum of three run-throughs to ensure they catch everything that needs catching!
On the first run-through, students should look at structural issues to ensure the descriptive text is well-organized. For example:
- Does it follow the standard five paragraph structure as outlined above?
- Does it contain a thesis statement?
- Is the thesis statement supported by each of the body paragraphs?
- Does the conclusion restate the thesis, summarize the main points, and leave the reader with something to think about?
On the second run-through, students should examine the sentences that comprise the paragraphs, asking questions such as:
- Do they follow a clear and coherent order?
- Are they well-constructed and grammatically correct?
- Are the length of the sentences varied?
- Are the sentence structures varied?
On the third and final run-through, students should check word choice, spelling, and punctuation. They can do this by asking question such as:
- Have any words been overused?
- Have redundant words been removed?
- Is the copy free from spelling errors?
- Has the correct punctuation been used throughout?
One good way for students to check their own work is to read it aloud. This helps slow things down, making it more likely that they’ll catch smaller mistakes they may otherwise miss.
Writing descriptive texts gives students an opportunity to flex their creative muscles. It challenges them to find new and innovative ways to use language to paint pictures in the minds of readers.
This can all be very daunting for some students, especially those who find writing difficult at the best of times.
The most effective way to encourage reluctant students to unleash the power of their imagination via the written word, is to provide them with a clear structure on which they can hang their words. The steps outlined above will provide this structure for your students.
But, as well as ensuring students have ample practice opportunities to write, be sure too that students have the opportunity to read well-written descriptive texts written by skilful writers, whether in the form of poetry, essays, or novels.
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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.