How to Write a Descriptive Paragraph


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  • #1
When most of us write, we simply put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and express whatever comes to mind. Oftentimes that's fine. It's actually what I'm doing right now. I'm typing away on this forum and I haven't the slightest idea of what I'm going to say next. The thing is, sometimes we need to write with focus to specifically express a thought or an idea that needs to be expressed. In cases like these, we need to fall back on our training to write purposeful paragraphs that accomplish certain goals.

If I were to write a paragraph that included personal thoughts, feelings, and growth, I'd be writing what's referred to as a narrative paragraph. I'll give that a go right now.

I'm feeling blue today. It's really starting to get to me and I think I may be depressed. I'm not going to take it anymore! I've decided to finally do something with my life.

That's a fine paragraph, but it didn't really describe anything. It didn't give the reader much to go on. What was the scenery like where I was writing? Was it hot/cold? What did things look like? Were there any interesting smells stemming from the area? When it comes to paragraphs like these, the writing needs to be much more descriptive. Descriptive paragraphs need to focus on the vicinity. The writer needs to look around and vividly describe the atmosphere. Explain and describe what's going on so the five senses are stimulated: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Adjectives need to be used. The writing needs to be crafty and not only do the five senses need to be touched upon, but the sensations felt by those senses need to be described. For example, take a look at these comparative sentences:

Example 1: It smells in here.

Example 2: The wires crossed and the electrical arcs made a crackling and popping sound. The plastic insulation melted as I watched the wisp of smoke rise. The pungent odor quickly traced through my flaring nostrils, past my rapidly degrading nose hairs and straight towards my tender sinuses. When the dangerous chemical compound touched my waiting flesh, my entire head burned in agonizing terror. I shook about in the searing heat of the room as the acrid nature of the poison settled on the back of my tongue. All I could taste was the sharp bitterness of those burning wires.

I really can stop this post right here. Just by giving you those two examples, I think I've said enough. I'll keep going though because once you learn the idea behind how important and powerful descriptive paragraphs are and can be, your writing will open right up like an enormous can of wiggly red worms.

So let me ask you something. If you reread those two examples I gave you above, which one do you think gives you more information about the scene? Which provides a better and more conclusive mental picture? Yes, of course the second example does. The first one didn't really tell the reader anything more than the fact that it smells. The second one, however, provided much more of a vivid picture of whatever it was that was happening. It was also much more fun to read the second example than the first. So when a teacher or professor asks you to be more descriptive in your writing, think about sharing some information about what in the atmosphere might stimulate the five senses.

As I just mentioned, in the first example, all that was given was that something smelled someplace. That merely touched upon one sense; smell. And even then, it didn't describe very much beyond the fact that a smell existed. In the second example, I shared aspects that appeal to smell, touch, sight, taste, and sound. As you read through the paragraph, notice which phrases and words impact which sense. "All I could taste was the sharp bitterness..." "...a crackling and popping sound." " I watched the wisp of smoke rise." "...chemical compound touched my waiting flesh..." "The pungent odor quickly traced through..." The paragraph was pretty descriptive, if I don't say so myself. It's the kind of writing that lets the reader imagine themselves being there.

So what are some common descriptive words you can use in your writing? Well, there are many of them, but here are a few examples. I'll list them based on sense.

Sight: green, tall, bumpy, far away, ugly, huge, square, dark.

Hearing: loud, grating, screech, melodic, beautiful, harmonious.

Touch: soft, furry, cuddly, creamy, sticky, dry, hot, painful.

Smell: pungent, crisp, sharp, sweet, acrid, fresh, stale, fruity.

Taste: sour, savory, salty, tantalizing, appetizing.

The goal of writing descriptive paragraphs is to show the reader what's being discussed as opposed to telling them. Although, the trick is to not go overboard. Every splinter in a piece of wood doesn't need to be described. The exact diameter of the curved edge of a 2x4 doesn't need to be conveyed either. Remember that you only need to educate the reader about the various details of something if those details are important to the story or if they make the story more interesting. Sometimes authors can get away with writing about nothing and still entertain the reader if their descriptive paragraphs are interesting enough. Amor Towles and Vladimir Nabokov can write so well that even if their books don't contain the most invigorating plots, they'll keep readers coming back simply for their beautiful writing. But for you and me, unless we're some sort of literary geniuses, we need to stick to making sure our descriptions have something to do with what our readers need to know. Remember, the words you place within a paragraph are placed there for a reason. They carry your story along. They bring the reader with you as you tell them your story. Why is the smell of the atmosphere important? How does the taste of a food impact the actions of a character? Where does the character feel the pain and where does that pain bring the story?

Example 1: I never enjoyed giving oral reports in class.

Example 2: Ever since I was a kid, I was terrified to speak publicly in school. As a young boy, my classmates would mock me for my stutter. I was never able to speak clearly and now my seventh grade teacher insisted upon placing me in front of the class to make a fool of myself? As if I needed things to get any worse in my life. I was shy enough because of my embarrassment and stuttering through a verbal book report would only add to my humiliation. No girls would ever like me and I would probably get beat up. Then I'd have to explain my failure to my parents who were already tough on me due to my shortcomings.

In the first example, did you learn why I didn't like giving oral reports? No. Did you learn when? No. Where? Yes, in class? What exactly did you learn? Not much beside that I didn't like to do something in a certain location. In the second example, you learned why I didn't like to speak in public. Because I'd be seen as a failure to my parents, get beat up, lose out on love interests, and would make a fool of myself because of my perceived speech impediment. You actually learned quite a bit in the second example, all because I decided to describe and embellish upon a small simple fact. I had perceived shortcomings, was shy because of them, and experienced a lack of confidence that I felt would affect my entire life.

While writing, always try to remember your purpose for writing. If it's something technical where brevity would be appreciated, then by all means, keep things boring and brief, but if you're attempting to carry your reader along, you'll need to tap into their five senses. Allow them to smell the clean fresh air. Help them taste the succulent steak with the creamy, yet sweet and buttery mashed potatoes. Tickle their fancy with the soft delicate tip of a feather that's fallen from a bird's wing as it migrated south for the winter. Show your reader why what your writing is important. Help them understand and you'll likely find yourself a new fan of your writing.


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  • #2
In general, there are a few common things you'll write about. These are person, place, object, and event. I'll cover the importance of being descriptive with each of these below.


When it comes to writing a descriptive person paragraph, you really need to focus on a few critical areas. The very first thing has to do with purpose. Can you imagine writing a story about a beaver making a dam and every so often sticking in a wonderfully written paragraph about your uncle Bob? Yeah, I know. You probably wouldn't do that. Not unless uncle Bob has something to do with the story. So when writing about a person or people, make sure you've got their specific purpose for being mentioned firmly squared away in your head. What's the reason you chose to write about this person? What do they have to do with the story? How do they affect other aspects of the story? When writing about him or her, you need to make your reasoning abundantly clear. A common mistake writers make is that they get so caught up in describing details of someone that they forget about the reason the character exists in the first place. It's best to stay on course to keep the story moving forward, and at the same time, giving the scene character and flair. Perhaps uncle Bob is a mysterious man who inherited the property upon which the beaver lives. Maybe Bob visits the beaver every morning and the two of them have developed an interesting relationship. Weave the person into the paragraph and make it come alive in a vivid way.

By asking and answering the questions I posed about the person above, you'll effortlessly find your reasoning. And not only that, when you answer simple questions about who, what, why, when, and where, you'll eventually end up with a format for your paragraph that makes sense. Let's continue on with uncle Bob and the beaver.

Let's say that you used to visit your uncle Bob on his property when you were a kid. He owned a large parcel of land that a brook ran through. In the brook, the beaver lived. He made a dam. Through the years, you'd talk to your uncle Bob and visit him more often. He'd discuss the beaver and the dam with you over the phone and during visits. By asking yourself why you chose to write about this person, what makes this particular person special, if the person is involved in a memory, what it is about this person that was so inspirational, you essentially set your paragraph up. You format it without even knowing.

You chose to write about uncle Bob because he's owns the land the beaver lives upon. He's special because he's got a relationship with the beaver which is interesting to hear about. The entire paragraph will be derived from a memory of visiting your uncle. And the fact that you have a good relationship with Bob and that he's got a wonderful piece of property inspired you to write all about it. Now, since you know all these things and since the story is a memory, it would probably make sense to set things up chronologically. You can easily make an intro sentence or two that describes how and why you'll tell the story about your uncle and the beaver. You can also write a conclusion sentence or two that closes the paragraph out. In the middle is where you'll get descriptive about uncle Bob. The description will be about the chain of events that occurred. Not so much about your uncle, per se, but more about how the relationships progressed and transitioned through time.

You can also take a different tack if you were inclined to write about your uncle's personality and quirky ways. His eccentricities. His loneliness on that big piece of land. His ponytail and slim build with the walking stick he would take with him every single time he walked back in those woods. Either way, you'll certainly entertain your readers with your descriptiveness about the chronology of your visits or how interesting your uncle's personality was.


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  • #3

Simply put, when getting descriptive about a particular place, you, again, need to think about the reason you're mentioning it at all. As with descriptive paragraphs about people, places need purpose. You won't get very far describing a wide open field in overly characteristic detail. Unless, of course, something of particular interest occurred in that field. And the field played a big part in that occurrence. Just because something happened someplace doesn't mean that the area should be brought into the story. If the occurrence wouldn't have happened without a specific layout or obstacle that was overcome, then yes, describe away.

Like above, when describing place there are two primary ways to organize your paragraph. The first way is to write about the actual place itself. Set the story up (the mood) by telling the reader about the, for example, spooky house. Instill some tension by writing about the creaky floor boards and the spider webs in the corners of the room. The long cool shadows cast by the moonlight. The bare cupboards and the broken down furniture. Alternately, you can focus on something or things that happened at the place. For example, mention that your father used to sit in his favorite chair that was set in the corner of the room. How your mother used to come from the brightly lit kitchen with a steaming dinner to hand your father as he basked next to the warm fire in the fireplace nearby. Oh how you loved that house because of all the memories that were created there. You get the idea.

Here's a tip for you. While describing place in your paragraph, be sure to stick with it and don't stray off where you shouldn't go. For example, if you're describing your childhood home and all the memories that were created there, stay there at home and let your description flourish. Allow your readers to immerse themselves in your writing and to imagine that they were there with you as a child. Don't jolt them by suddenly discussing another place that you used to also cherish as a child as well. Wait for a different paragraph to do that.


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  • #4

Ask yourself a question. Why in the world have you chosen this object to write about? What good is it? Why is it important? What does it have to do with the story? You can use the same pattern within most descriptive paragraphs. Ask yourself why you chose to write about something and then stay focused on that thing to get your point across.

When writing descriptive paragraphs about objects, you'll ask and answer the question of why you chose that particular object. Once that happens, you'll know how you should structure your writing. If the object itself is of particular importance, you'll likely describe its characteristics, powers, or something like that. Think of a powerful sword in a fantasy novel or the kryptonite in a Superman movie. These things hold special importance and need to be described appropriately (history, ownership, etc...). Alternately, an object may hold significance if something of importance occurred near it. Think of the waystones in The Name of the Wind. At these waystones, important events occurred (marriages, concerts, etc...). In cases like these, you wouldn't want to describe every minute characteristic of the stones, but more of why an event may have transpired there.

Remember though, whatever type of structure you choose for describing an object in a paragraph, you really do need to focus on the object itself. For instance:

- The sword was handed down from my father's father and then my father to me. It holds great significance and a power unto itself. With its ruby eye, it can see all and with its gold and armor plating, it has the strength of one thousand horses.

- The bridge is where we stopped at least once per month while we were passing through. With its mighty arches and strong stone structure, it was able to hold all of our carriages at one time. My family and our troop would park nearby and feast on the foods we gathered from town. The bridge would shield us from the wind and protect us from pirates who may be on the lookout for their next prey.

In both of the above examples, while the story progressed, I still focused on the object at hand. In the first example, the object was the sword and in the second, the object was the bridge. In the first example, I was more concerned about the characteristics of the object, while in the second example, I was more concerned about what occurred near or around the object in somewhat of a chronological order. It's important to differentiate the two types of writing to remain clear and to allow the reader to understand your intent.


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  • #5

This is where we mix things up a bit. With the previous three descriptive paragraph type examples, we focused primarily on two different types of structures; one where we'd describe the person, place, or object itself or one where we'd describe an event connected it what we're describing. Those previous examples were fairly straightforward, as is what I'm about to discuss below.

When it comes to describing an event, think about discussing the specific things that have either happened, are currently happening, or will happen in the future. Typically, you'll write chronologically from the past to the future or vice-versa. For example, if you recently engaged in a fist fight, you might want to describe the feelings of trepidation you had before the fight, the rage you felt while you were fighting, and the relief you felt when it was over. If the fight hasn't happened yet, you might describe the feelings of anxiety you currently have or some other feelings you may be experiencing due to the impending altercation.

In the most basic sense, while in the previous three examples, we were sure not to allow any particular event overshadow the person, place, or object, this time, we're all about the event and the ideas and feelings that surround it.


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  • #6
Review Assignments - Person

1. Write a descriptive paragraph about a person in your family following one of the organizational schemes listed.

I'll choose to write about my grandmother. I'll use the organizational scheme that focuses primarily upon personal characteristics.

She sat in her chair glaring at me. I noticed her stare immediately. She always looked at me the same way; with disgust and despair. I'm not sure why or how she first formulated her disdain, but it was on full display currently. I sat and faced her squarely. I wouldn't back down this time. Our eyes met. I quickly broke as mine wandered slightly, only to glance quickly at my grandmother's freckled hands, vein filled arms, and wrinkled face. I do believe I hated her as much as she hated me. The longer we sat facing one another, the narrower her eyes became. I could feel her seething. She was boiling. Her tiny eyes became more narrow yet and I watched as her boney old fingers clutched the arms of her chair. Her knuckles became white, which complemented her pale yellow dress. Her dress with those tiny white and light blue flowers. Such a wonderful looking piece of clothing for such a disgusting and hate filled woman.

2. Write a descriptive paragraph about an important person in history using the event organization. Instead of indicating how the person is important to you, indicate how the person is important or significant within history.

His fingers trembled as he placed them on the switch. Everything he had done - all of his life's work hinged on this moment. He could sense the current lying, waiting, ready to pounce on the filament when the signal was given. If the bulb lit, he would surely let out a yelp. There was no one else in the room to hear him make a sound, but he wouldn't have the will to contain himself. If this experiment worked, humanity would be changed forever. Thomas Edison stood before his work bench and flipped the switch that eventually lit up the world.


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  • #7
Review Assignments - Place

1. Write a descriptive paragraph about your hometown. Describe the town and indicate why it is important either to you or to society as a whole.

My hometown sits a mile high in the sky. It represents the epitome of the height of land. My hometown holds secrets and dreams and fantasies for people all around the world. Those very people come to Boulder to witness the majesty of the Rockies just a stone's throw away. While Boulder's arid climate and abundant sunshine offer a paradise unto itself, it's those Rocky Mountains that contain the key to adventure. Boulder is merely a pathway there. Stay here. Spend a night. Enjoy the nightlife and the warmth of our population. Then, climb those mountains to the west and let your life truly begin.

2. Write a descriptive paragraph about one of the original Coast Salish settlements at the time of first contact with European explorers. Describe the location and environment, paying close attention to how the structure of the settlement was a response to the coastal environment.

Those powerful sea storms would whip up and down the west coast and destroy much in their wakes. Powerful they were, so powerful in fact, the Coast Salish people were forced to build their settlements away from the edge of land. Sheltered bays, mouths of rivers, and inlets kept the their people safe from the high winds and dangerous sea surge. Fishing was good where they had long called these places home, so that became part of their culture. The land played host to the Salish. The rivers fed them. The beauty of both allowed these ancient folk the ability to appreciate their lives through ceremony and legend.


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  • #8
Review Assignments - Object

1. Write a descriptive paragraph about a gift you received on your birthday. Remember you can arrange your paragraph according to the characteristics of the object or by detailing the event at which you received it.

I tore through the wrapping paper and saw the box I had been waiting for. It was light brown cardboard with a dull matte face. The words sang to me. I can't recall which sang louder, Rolex or Submariner. Rolex watches are pure art, but the Submariner brings that art to the next level. The box was small, but it had some heft to it. I hadn't given much thought to the weight of the watch I had lusted after for so many years. I couldn't wait any longer to open the box to reveal what I waiting for me inside. So I didn't. I didn't wait and I cracked open the shell of the oyster to reveal the pearl. The contents contained within nearly blinded me. The shining silver sparkled and each time I twisted what was in my hand, another glimmer would reveal itself. It was as if I were holding a giant sparkling crystal clear diamond in my hand. The front of the watch was flawlessly pure glass and behind that was a coal black face with snow white numbers and time markings. The hands went tick, tick, tick, with the utmost precision. No matter what I did, the watch called out at me, tempting me to pull it from it's resting place to slide around my hand and onto my wrist.

2. Write a descriptive paragraph about the provincial flower, the dogwood. Be sure to indicate why the flower is important to the province.

The dogwood isn't a large tree, but it sure does offer some beautiful flowers. Springtime brings the large and shadowy white blooms into full display and sightseers and local residents enjoy them for weeks on end. Such beauty is offered - so much beauty, in fact, that British Columbia captured it and made the dogwood its official floral emblem. This occurred in 1956 and yet the tranquility and demure of this lovely plant has endured favorably to this day.


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  • #9
Review Assignments - Event

1. Write a descriptive paragraph about a commemorative event that you attended or that you plan to attend in the future (wedding, memorial, graduation, etc.). Remember to include the people, location, or objects that make the event significant.

He has been my best friend for decades and today he was fully prepared to devote his life to the woman he loved. I've been anticipating this important and pivotal day for as long as I can remember. Through the years John and I had discussed what might bring him to this memorable event and just recently we had both agreed that he was doing the right thing. She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, both on the inside and out. She was what John was and wasn't. She filled in the gaps as he did for her. The union would be a special one that I was proud to be a part of. With the waves crashing down below and the birds soaring above, it seemed as though the stars were aligned for these two souls.

2. Write a descriptive paragraph about the next or last federal election, focusing on why this election is significant in the United States.

Half of the country can't stand Donald Trump, while the other half can't stand Joe Biden. We're completely divided without any chance of reconciliation, which is odd because as I discuss politics with my friends and family who allegedly have different viewpoints than I have, I realize that we're not actually as far apart as we pretend to be. Each and every conversation that I've had has ended up in complete and utter agreement. We all want what's best for our country, ourselves, and each other. The strange thing is, during this entire election cycle, the media, whether they be on TV, the internet, or on paper, has tried their damnedest to rip apart the very fabric that holds us together. Why? Think about it. Every four years, giant media companies are faced with a question. Would they like to have campaign cash flow into their coffers or not? They assuredly choose yes so they begin working feverishly to polarize the electorate. The more polarized we the people are, the more each campaign needs to spend to persuade, cajole, and connive. The 2020 election cycle spending is now in the billions. That's billions spent on media advertising. If we were all in agreement, no advertising would be necessary at all. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. Every single thing you read or listen to is meant to make you hate one side and love the other. And the worst part about it is, they're all in it together.