Writing to Describe


Writing to describe is a deceptively simple type of writing that often causes students many problems in the exam because it seems like an easy task to ‘describe your first day at school’. However, these straightforward recounts of everything you did often become boring and pedestrian: the trick to doing this kind of task well is to realise that you don’t actually have to describe your real first day at school – exaggerate (within reason), make it up (again within reason, your first day in school wasn’t on the Moon), focus on small details and really bring the feelings, impressions and emotions of the day to life.


Note! It is important that you read the question carefully and make sure you use the correct GAP:   

Genre:         make sure that your answer looks like the right kind of writing: if you’re meant to be writing a letter then make sure that it starts with ‘Dear …’ and ends correctly, if you’re meant to be writing an article for a school newspaper then make sure that it reads like a teen news article, which will be different to the essay you would write if you were asked to write a news report for the Bangkok Post;


Audience:    this will influence two things: firstly, the level of formality that you use, a letter written to your friends will be very different to a letter written to your headmaster; more importantly the audience will also determine the kinds of shared information you can include, a letter written to your cousins might refer back to an amazing family holiday you went on or the embarrassing habits of your uncles whereas a letter written to your Head of Year might refer to things from your Residential, references to the school uniform, the size of the queue at the noodle bar, etc – things that your Head of Year will be expected to know about;


Purpose:      make sure that your answer does the right kind of thing: if you are asked to explain to me how a mobile phone works then make sure that you explain how to use it rather than persuade me that using it is good. Be careful also of the difference between persuasive writing, which argues strongly for one side, and discursive writing, which is more balance, examines both sides of the argument and only offers a personal opinion in the final paragraph.



What's the point of writing to Describe?

·         To describe something (a place, person, object, emotion, situation, event) so that you create an image, or a picture in the reader's mind, of what you are writing about.

·         To ‘bring to life’ an image inside the head of your reader rather than give them a cold factual account of the thing being described. So, for example, instead of saying that something is beautiful you need to manipulate language in order to create the impression that the thing you are describing is beautiful.



What conventions should I use?

·         use adjectives, similes, metaphors, personification to create imagery

·         use alliteration, sibilance, assonance, harsh consonants, hyperbole: descriptive writing is as close to poetry as you can get in narrative writing and so use all the tools that a poet has at their disposal to create effects

·         use words relating to one's senses (sight/touch/hearing/smell)

·         these senses can be mixed up so that you pretend to taste something that you can actually really only see (a technique called Synaesthesia) in order to heighten sensation and really bring the scene to life e.g. 'the warm buttery taste of sunlight on a Summer's evening'

·         showing rather than telling - e.g. 'My heart was close to bursting' rather than 'I was scared'

·         sophisticated vocabulary

·         varied sentence lengths - short sentences followed by long sentences. Short sentences work well at the start of a descriptive writing piece to grab attention or they can be used when you want to change tone, change pace of create a sudden shock

·         varied sentence structures – most English sentences are structured Actor, Verb Object - e.g. 'I (actor) ate (verb) the apple (object)' but a varied sentence structure might bring the verb to the front and may even put an adverb in front of that: 'Slowly (adverb) devouring (interesting verb) the apple (object) I (actor) rose from my chair and ...' If you find this difficult the most important thing is that you just make sure that you don’t start every sentence with the same word or phrase, in particular ‘I’

·         foregrounding, to bring the most important element right to the front of the sentence / paragraph so that it sticks in the reader’s mind

·         repetition to emphasis key moments, elements or ideas

·         structure - descriptive writing usually has an element of organisation either chronologically or in order of importance, although this can be disrupted if you wish and your description may be circular ending back where it started. A circular narrative can be used to create an effect of inescapability, monotony or routine. An alternative structure is to start right in the middle of the action to grab the attention of the audience and then 'flash back' to an earlier point in time in order to explain the events leading up to the point where you started

·         punctuation – one correctly used colon, semi-colon or pair of commas can create a very good impression as many students do not use these punctuation marks successfully. Be wary of using too many question marks and exclamation marks as students tend to do this too often



How should I structure my answer?

Introduction:    begin strongly by trying to create an impression or feeling rather than worrying about explaining exactly what is going on e.g. ‘It was my first day at school and I woke up excited’ is a fairly predictable way to start an essay about your first day at school but you might start with a short sentence and image from right in the middle of the day and then only later ‘flash back’ to make it clear that this is your first day of school, for example:


                        ‘Giants! Giants everywhere. Stalking the halls like ruthless predatory dinosaurs waiting to pounce on any poor unfortunate soul who, isolated, happens to have strayed from the pack and lost their way. I cowered in a doorway seeking refuge, desperate for shelter, terrified by the beasts that hulked their way past me grunting in time to the music on their adolescently angry iPods. It was my first day at school.


                        This opening is far more gripping and uses a range of descriptive writing techniques to impress the examiner such as short sentences, varied sentence structure, repetition, extended imagery, personification, a triad, a pair of commas and interesting verbs such as ‘hulked’.


Main body:       The main body should be split into paragraphs each of which will deal either with a different element of the thing being described (if you are asked to just describe a place or an object) or with different things that have happened as you progress chronologically through time (if you are asked to describe an event or situation). Be aware, however, that you can disrupt this very linear structure if you wish to in order to create an effect.


                        Do not feel that you have to cover everything: you do not have to write about the whole of your first day. A brilliantly detailed description of your first 5 minutes at school will score more highly than a mundane and plodding account of exactly what you did on your first day.


Conclusion:      your conclusion need not sum up everything but there is usually a sense of conclusion, resolution or completeness. So for example, the lost and terrified student mentioned in the introduction might end by finally finding the way to his / her class in time for registration.



Hints & Tips:


·         make up facts to your work more interesting - e.g. if asked to write about you first day at school then you don't have to write about your actual first day, which may have been quite boring and ordinary or perhaps you can't even remember it. Instead write about the first day in school from hell - complete with monstrous senior studies students stalking the corridors and slime oozing from the cockroach infested salad in the canteen

·         use every opportunity to display your writing skills - exams are about showing off - so don't feel you have to stick to the truth if you feel you can write more interesting lies: however, your lies must be sane and believable, ridiculous descriptions will not gain you any marks

·         do focus on small details: these give you more to write about and more opportunities to use a variety of descriptive techniques

·         think like an examiner: include points that you would give marks for if you were an examiner



·         forget to answer the question: if you focus too much on the fine detail you can lose sight of what you’re actually trying to write about

·         sacrifice detail for quantity

·         feel like you have to describe everything, or to use the example above, your whole first day. A brilliant account of your first 5 minutes in the sandpit will probably score more marks than a routine plodding through of everything that happened on your first day in kindergarten