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

  • Model Descriptive Paragraphs
    Each of these four descriptive paragraphs (three student paragraphs along with a paragraph by Maxine Hong Kingston) responds in its own way to the guidelines in How to Write a Descriptive Paragraph.
  • Model Place Descriptions
    As you read these four paragraphs, notice how place signals help to establish cohesion, guiding the reader clearly from one detail to the next.
  • Descriptive Details in Stegner's "Town Dump"
    In these five paragraphs from his memoir Wolf Willow, Stegner employs precise descriptive details to convey the poetry of a town dump.
  • David Sedaris's Description of a Nudist Trailer Park
    In this excerpt from his essay "Naked," an account of a week-long visit to a nudist colony, Sedaris describes his living quarters and the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Joseph Mitchell's Place Description: McSorley's Saloon
    Mitchell describes New York City's oldest Irish tavern in a series of clearly arranged sentences, many of them short and deceptively simple yet always precise and evocative.
  • Lists in William Least Heat-Moon's Place Description
    In this passage from Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes a cafe in Darlington, South Carolina. Note his reliance on detailed lists to convey a sense of place.
  • Comparison in Sarah Vowell's Place Description
    Sarah Vowell conveys distinct impressions of her father and herself by describing--and comparing--their different work spaces at home.
  • Edgar Allan Poe's New York in the 1840s
    Note Poe's attention to details of place and the ways that his descriptions evoke a melancholic mood.
  • 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.
  • Mark Singer's Profile of "Mr. Personality"
    Mark Singer describes "the founder and at the moment the only member" of an organization called the Goodnicks of America.
  • Russell Baker's Sketch of Mr. Fleagle
    In this description of his high school English teacher, journalist Russell Baker relies on repetition to convey an overwhelming impression of dullness.
  • Status Details in Tom Wolfe's Descriptions
    In these two paragraphs from the novel A Man in Full, Wolfe conveys a sense of character through physical description--or what he calls "status details."

Description: Classic Essays