Composing Descriptive Paragraphs and Essays

Writing Guidelines, Topic Ideas, Exercises, and Readings

The Markthal in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. (Michel Porro/Getty Images)

The purpose of descriptive writing is to make our readers see, feel, and hear what we have seen, felt, and heard. Whether we're describing a person, a place, or a thing, our aim is to reveal a subject through vivid, carefully arranged details.

Two common forms of description are the character sketch (or profile) and the place description.

In describing a character, we look for details that not only show what an individual looks like but also provide clues to his or her personality.

Eudora Welty's Sketch of Miss Duling (a precise physical description of a first-grade teacher) and Mark Singer's Profile of "Mr. Personality" (a description of the only member of the Goodnicks of America) are just two of the paragraph-length character sketches linked below.

With thoughtfully organized details, we can also suggest the personality--or mood--of a place. Below you'll find links to several place descriptions, including Wallace Stegner's "Town Dump" and a student's essay on her "Home of Yesteryear."

For ideas on how to compose your own descriptive paragraph or essay, spend some time studying the guidelines, topic suggestions, exercises, and readings offered here.

Description: Writing Guidelines and Topic Suggestions


Description: Sentence Combining Exercises


Descriptive Paragraphs: Place Description

  • Character Sketch by John McPhee
    John McPhee combines vivid descriptions with direct quotations in this sketch of a schoolteacher who works in a public market during summer vacations.
  • Willie Morris's Descriptive Narrative
    In this passage from his memoir North Toward Home, Morris relies on concrete details that both record and interpret a shocking experience.


Descriptive Paragraphs: Character Sketches and Profiles

  • Eudora Welty's Sketch of Miss Duling
    Welty's precise physical description of her first-grade teacher, Miss Duling, also provides insights into the character of this "lifelong subscriber to perfection."
  • John Lahr's Profile of David Mamet
    This paragraph has been drawn from the conclusion of Lahr's lengthy profile of David Mamet. Notice how the description of the cabin where the playwright works, the references to the books on his table, and the brief quotations from Mamet's sister and from Mamet himself all serve to reveal aspects of character.

Description: Classic Essays