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How to Write a Descriptive Essay

The descriptive essay is a "virtual reality" experience in prose. It puts the reader inside the sensory, emotional, and intellectual world of the writer. Like poetry, the descriptive essay relies upon the following:

- vivid verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs
- fresh and lively figures of speech

The descriptive writer's goal is to show as well as tell. Read the model descriptive essay below and share the writer's scary experience. Then, in the writing activity, practice verbal CPR on some tired turns of phrase. Finally, set out on a familiar journey in a descriptive essay that you will write yourself -- with all five senses awake and alert.

Example of a descriptive essay

Just the night before, my little brother had complained, "Nothing exciting ever happens at our house." I wasn't thinking of that, though, when I woke up one Saturday morning and found the kitchen smelling like a fresh coat of oil paint. Mom and Dad had already gone to work. I touched one of the cabinets. No wet paint there, just the slightly sticky feel of wood in need of cleaning. I opened the front door of our apartment to check where the smell was coming from. Splat! The fumes hit my face like a splash of gasoline. I caught my breath and slammed the door.

"Quick," I called to my brother, who was still in his bedroom watching cartoons. "There's a fire somewhere in the building. Find the cat and get ready to leave." I dialed 911 and tried to answer the operator's questions as well as I could. "Are the fumes acrid or base?" she wanted to know. I wished I had paid closer attention in science class. As soon as I hung up, I packed my violin in its case, and my brother emerged with the cat zipped into his backpack, her two yellow eyes glinting like gold buttons out the top.

We took a deep breath and started down the five flights of stairs, knocking on each of our neighbors' doors along the way. Only one grumpy man replied to our warning. "Go away," he snarled. My brother started whimpering, but I grabbed his hand and told him not to waste his breath. The air burned like hot sauce in our throats, but strangely, not even a puff of smoke darkened the bright October light streaming through the skylight.

As soon as we reached the stoop, we ran next door to the Chinese laundry. The familiar smell of detergent and ironing was as comforting as a mother's hug. The owner, who knew my family well, frowned and nodded as I explained our sudden appearance.

At last, a fire engine pulled up quietly, like a shiny red school bus. I think my brother was disappointed that it didn't blow its siren. We ran to the curb to talk to the first fireman off the truck, a huge statue in helmet and uniform puffing a fat cigar. He listened to our story and waved three more men off the truck. "You two stay here," he ordered, leading his crew armed with hatchets, extinguishers, and gas meters. He was back within minutes, cigar in hand. "Seems the man cleaning the furnace had some trouble with the exhaust," he puffed. "Sent the fumes right back into the system. Just air the place out for a few hours and you'll be fine."

He was right. With all the windows open, the kitchen smelled like toast, hot cider and cat food within minutes. We sat down to breakfast at last, happy for once that nothing exciting usually happens at our house.

Quotation marks let the reader know when someone is speaking in a story. Punctuation should go inside the closing quotation mark. Commas stand in for periods when the quotation is part of another sentence. Re-read the sample descriptive essay and find all of the places where the author uses quotation marks. Be prepared to use quotation marks correctly in your own writing.

Writing a descriptive essay does not have to be difficult!

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