Descriptive essays are among the most personal, artistic, and therefore rewarding writing modes in the academy. Here, the student is tasked with giving an account of an experience, place, person, sensation, object, et cetera. The intent is to provide the reader with a vivid impression of the item in question. But this is not mere description in the conventional, dictionary sense. Rather, we are concerned with creative treatment, allowing the reader to understand the item from many angles, how it looks, feels, smells and sounds, the emotional and psychological experience of it. You are using words to conjure an image, to make the experience “real” for the reader. Oftentimes, ironically, one needs to use figurative language to convey a literal experience more potently. Consider that the statement “I could eat a horse” is far more evocative than “I was very hungry”, giving a more visceral feel for the intended sensation – even though the former statement reflects an impossibility. Language is elastic, allowing for many creative contortions in the evocation of emotion, which is, underneath it all, the primary purpose of a descriptive essay. If asked to write about one’s house, for example, an itinerary of masonry and fixtures, eaves and gables, is not required – although some creative treatment of such items may benefit the greater purpose. Only, it is more to the point that the eaves “cast their cooling shadow over the porch on summer mornings, causing the ivy to lean searchingly eastward for the sun’s warmth” than that “they extend slightly over the highpoint of the front wall”. You need to search for the emotion evoked by the objects, not their formal properties per se. To state that a floorboard is of pine does not evoke the warm character of wooden flooring, how it feels. A good descriptive essay, then, draws the emotional resonance out of subject or object; it plants a vivid image in the reader’s head, by means of language that moves.
In order to achieve top marks in a descriptive essay you will need to get underneath the skin of the item being described, to excavate its emotional resonance. Think about how it makes you feel and why. Usually there will be a certain characteristic that holds a particular sway. For example, a particular meal might stir memories of childhood. Share this experience. You might be surprised to find many people hold similar, if not the exact same, associations. You want to transplant your emotional and psychological experience of the object in discussion from your mind to the reader’s. It will help you get to the heart of the matter if you brainstorm the item, noting down the way it makes you feel. Likely you will soon alight upon the special quality you need to begin to paint a picture of it. Read literary texts to get excellent examples of how such writing works. In particular D. H. Lawrence has a gift for evoking a sensation and Dickens is exceptional when depicting places and people. Write more than one draft to ensure a polished piece.
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