Planning A Setting Description Essay
One of the keys to writing a descriptive essay is to create a picture in your reading audience’s mind by engaging all five of their senses – smell, sight, touch, taste and sound. If you can do this, then your essay is a success, if not, then you have a lot of work to do. The first steps in writing a descriptive essay will lay the groundwork for the entire piece.
Step 1: Choose a topic
A descriptive essay will usually focus on a single event, a person, a location or an item. When you write your essay, it is your job to convey your idea about that topic through your description of that topic and the way that you lay things out for your reader. You need to show your reader (not tell them) what you are trying to describe by illustrating a picture in their mind’s eye very carefully.
Your essay needs to be structured in a manner that helps your topic to make sense. If you are describing an event, you will need to write your paragraphs in chronological order. If you are writing about a person or a place you need to order the paragraphs so that you start off in a general manner and then write more specific details later. Your introductory paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the essay, so it needs to set out all of the main ideas that you are going to cover in your essay.
Step 2: Create a statement
The next step is to create a thesis statement. This is a single idea that will be prominent throughout your essay. It not only sets out the purpose of the essay, but regulates the way that the information is conveyed in the writing of that essay. This is an introductory paragraph that sets out your topic framework.
Step 3: Get the senses right
Next, create five labelled columns on a sheet of paper, each one having a different of the five senses. This labelled list will help you to sort out your thoughts as you describe your topic – the taste, sight, touch, smell and sound of your topic can be sketched out among the columns. List out in the columns any sensation or feeling that you associate with the topic that you are writing about. You need to provide full sensory details that help to support the thesis. You can utilize literary tools such as metaphors, similes, personification and descriptive adjectives.
Once you have the columns laid out you can start to fill them with details that help to support your thesis. These should be the most interesting items that you have noted in your columns and will the details that you flesh out into the paragraphs of the body of your essay. Topics are set out in each separate paragraph and a topic sentence begins that paragraph and need to relate to your introductory paragraph and your thesis.
Step 4: Create an outline
The next step is to create an outline listing the details of the discussion of each paragraph. Students in high school are generally asked to write a five paragraph essay while college students are given more freedom with the length of their piece. The standard five paragraph essay has a particular structure including the introductory paragraph with the inclusion of a thesis statement, followed by three body paragraphs which prove that statement.
Step 5: Write the conclusion
Finally, the conclusion paragraph makes a summary of the entirety of your essay. This conclusion also needs to reaffirm your thesis (if necessary). Your conclusion needs to be well written because it is the final thing to be read by your reader and will remain on their mind the longest after they have read the remainder of your essay.
Step 6: Review your essay
It is important to take a break from your writing once you have completed the work. By stepping away from the work for a short time you can clear your mind and take a short rest. You can then take a look at the essay with fresh eyes and view it in much the same way that a person reading it will when they first see the piece.
After you have taken a short break or a walk (or whatever the case may be), read the entire essay again thinking about your reader. You should ask yourself if you were the reader, would the essay make sense to you? Is it easy to read so that anyone can understand what the topic of the essay is? Do any of the paragraphs need to be rewritten because they are confusing and need to be better written to be descriptive?
Your choice of words and language need to convey what you are trying to describe when you talk about a particular topic. The details that you have provided should give your reader enough information that they can form a complete picture. Any details in the essay should help a reader to understand the meaning of the topic from the writer’s point of view.
Read your entire essay over again, out loud this time. Sometimes reading something out loud can help to identify any issues that should be worked out. Read the essay again to a friend or family member and have them give you any criticisms that they might have. Have someone else ready your essay and then ask them if anything needs to be clarified or if they received a clear picture from the details given in the essay.
Step 7: Finish it up
Finally, read your essay again very carefully and check for any grammar, punctuation or spelling errors that are obvious within the essay. If you find any clichés, be sure to delete them, they certainly do not belong in your essay. If there are any parts that are not completely descriptive or don’t make as much sense as you would like them to, rewrite them once again and then follow the proof reading and reading aloud process again to ensure that the final product is exactly as expected. You can never be too thorough when it comes to reading the essay over again and checking for any areas that need to be reworked.
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“Descriptive writing is an art form. It’s painting a word picture so that the reader ‘sees’ exactly what you are describing.”
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What’s the big deal about writing descriptively? For one thing, it’s much more than page-filling fluff. Descriptive writing imprints images into the reader’s mind, making you feel as though you’re “right there.” It‘s all about engaging the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to transport the reader and stir emotion. By choosing vivid details and colorful words, good writers bring objects, people, places, and events to life. Instead of merely telling you what they see, they use their words to show you.
Writers use this powerful method to make their pieces memorable—even brilliant—rather than dry and boring. In many ways, description is the most important kind of writing you can teach your children. Why? Because it supports other reasons for writing such as storytelling, informative reports, or persuasion.
Even if your child never aspires to write stories or poetry, description is a wonderful skill to develop. Without it, all other writing falls flat.
Describing a Place
Vivid writing is especially important when describing a place — whether to describe a vista for a travel guide or flesh out a scene in a novel.
Master storyteller Charles Dickens was also a master of using description to create a mood.
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. ~Charles Dickens, Hard Times
But your child doesn’t have to be a Dickens to add color, depth, and interest to his writing. Here, a ninth grader draws on all five senses to describe a place and create a mood.
Moist and salty, a chilly breeze blows in across the swells, bringing with it the pungent smells of seaweed and fish and making me pull my jacket a little closer. Sea spray transforms into fiery prisms as the waves splash against the shore, catch the last golden rays of sun, and toss them up like liquid crystals.
With a few tips and tools, your child can effectively describe a place too.
Suppose he’s planning to write about a desert. He’ll need to describe basic desert features, of course: sand, rock, hills, and dunes. But deserts aren’t all alike, so his word choices will need to reflect the kind of desert he wants to write about. For example, if he chooses a desert in the southwestern United States, he’ll probably describe plants such as sagebrush, Joshua trees, yuccas, or saguaro cacti.
But if he’s writing about an oasis in the Sahara Desert, where vegetation is much different, he would instead describe date palms, oleanders, acacia trees, succulents, and desert grasses. His description of either desert scene will spring to life as he tells about these places using rich and appropriate details.
Finding Vocabulary for Describing a Place
How do you help your child study his subject and choose strong words that make his writing sparkle? Whether he decides to write about a desert, city, rain forest, or pond, these ideas will help him find words that will form the foundation of his descriptive piece, narrative story, or report.
Using a Search Engine
Search engines such as Google make a great resource for inspiration. In addition to collecting general terms about the location’s flora and fauna (the desert, for example), he’ll also find concrete, specific nouns and adjectives that add color to his writing. Suggest that he begin his search by looking up terms like these:
- desert landscape
- desert features
- desert climate
- desert plants
- desert animals
- desert description
What if your child wants to describe a city instead of a desert? City words are trickier to find, and he may have to hunt more. Try some of these search terms:
- describe city sights
- describe Chicago, describe Pittsburgh, etc.
- “describe downtown” (use quotes)
Using Other Sources
While search engines can lead you to a wealth of information, don’t discount the value of print media such as magazines and books. Also consider digital media such as TV documentaries or DVDs about the subject.
When describing a place, visit in person, if possible. But if not, can you explore a spot with similar features? Many children are visual and tactile learners. If your child wants to describe what a sidewalk looks like, how about taking him outside to explore the sidewalk on your street? It will help him describe the texture, color, and appearance of a city sidewalk, even if you live in a suburb.
As your child searches the Internet, ask him to keep an eye out for adjectives that describe desert or city features (or whatever place he wants to write about). Encourage him to come up with words on his own, but also to watch for words he meets in articles or photo captions.
If he doesn’t understand some of the words, pull out the dictionary and make it a teaching moment! And show him how to use a thesaurus (we love The Synonym Finder[aff]) to find other words that say the same thing. Both of these exercises will help his vocabulary to grow.
Some Desert Adjectives
Desert:harsh, dry, arid, sparse, severe, hot
Rock:sharp, rough, jagged, angular
Grasses:windblown, bent, dry, pale green, brown
Sand:coarse, fine, glittering, shifting, rippling, sifting, white, golden
Sky:pale, intense, cloudless, azure, purple, crimson
Cactus:tall, short, squatty, spiny, prickly, thorny
Date palm:tall, bent, leather (leaves), frayed (leaves)
Some City Adjectives
City:active, bustling, noisy, busy, clean, dirty, windy
Traffic:loud, congested, snarled
Buildings:old, shabby, rundown, crumbling, modern, futuristic, sleek, towering, squat
Buildings (walls):brick, stone, marble, glass, steel, graffiti-covered
Monuments, statues:stone, copper, carved, ancient, moss-covered, faded, green, bronze
Sidewalk:concrete, cement, slick, cracked, tidy, littered, swept
Paint:fresh, weathered, peeling
Signs:neon, weathered, worn, bright, welcoming, flashing
Buses, cars, taxis:belching, crawling, speeding, honking, waiting, screeching
People:hurried, bundled, smiling, frowning, eager, rushed
Use these suggestions to encourage your child come up with ideas for describing a place of his own. You’ll both discover that hunting for words can become a favorite pre-writing game! And as your child dabbles more and more in descriptive writing, I’m confident his words will soon begin to “show” more and “tell” less.
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Do you struggle with teaching and grading writing? Does your child’s writing need a boost? Consider adding WriteShop to your curriculum choices for this school year!
The first seven lessons of WriteShop I specifically teach your teen descriptive writing. This important skill is then practiced in the remaining informative and narrative writing lessons. In addition, WriteShop teaches—and offers practice in using—a wide array of sentence variations that help to enhance a student’s paper with fresh style and vigor. When combined with strong, dynamic word choices, sentence variations give dull writing new life.
For younger children, WriteShop Primary introduces K-3rd graders to activities that widen their writing vocabulary. Book C contains three specific descriptive writing lessons. WriteShop Junior, for upper elementary, also provides many opportunities for students to incorporate description.
Learn more here.
Photos: Alice, Dietmar Temps, & Phillip Capper, courtesy of Creative Commons