3.1 Descriptive Paragraphs – Building Blocks of Academic Writing (2023)

Chapter 3: Paragraph Structure

Learning Objectives

  • Understand and utilize the descriptive language associated with the five senses.
  • Conceptualize the difference between showing the reader and telling the reader.
  • Identify the different types of descriptive paragraphs: person, place, object, and event.
  • Describe a person, a place, an object, or an event adequately and concisely.
  • Master the organizational schemes associated with descriptive paragraphs.
  • Indicate in writing the significance of a person, place, object, and event.

A descriptive paragraph provides a vibrant experience for the reader through vivid language and descriptions of something. Unlike narrative paragraphs, which must include personal thoughts, feelings, and growth, descriptive paragraphs do not need to be personal in nature. Instead, descriptive paragraphs must focus on vividly and objectively describing something to the reader. In order to provide this vivid detail, the writer must use language that appeals to the reader’s five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. To appeal to these senses, the writer must use descriptive language, usually in the form of adjectives, that describes the sensations felt by the senses. For instance, examine the differences between the descriptions below:

Sentence 1: The tree was tall and green.

Sentence 2: The soft and damp pink flowers of the dogwood tree smelled sweet in the cool spring air as the wind whistled through its yellow-green leaves.

How do these descriptions compare? If these two sentences both describe the same tree, which sentence provides a better picture for the reader? Why?

While the first description does provide some detail (that the tree is both “tall” and “green”), it does not help the reader picture the tree. Saying that the tree is “tall” and “green” does not help separate the tree being described from any other tree. The second sentence, however, provides the reader with descriptive information that makes the tree unique. Unlike the writer of the first sentence, who only vaguely describes how the tree looked, the writer of the second sentence appeals to at least four of the reader’s five senses. This writer describes how the tree feels (soft and damp), how the tree smells (sweet), how the tree sounds (it whistles), and how the tree looks (pink and yellow-green). Through these descriptions, the reader can see, hear, feel, and smell the tree while reading the sentence. However, in some instances, not all of the senses will be applicable for the description. In this case, most descriptions of trees would not include a sense of how the tree tasted, especially when so many trees are inedible or poisonous!

Table 3.1 Words associated with each of the five senses
SeeHearSmellTasteFeel
  • colours (green, blue, red)
  • contrast (light vs. dark)
  • depth (near vs. far)
  • texture (rough, pebbly, smooth)
  • shape (round, square, triangular)
  • dimensions (height, width, length)
  • loud
  • grating
  • metallic
  • atonal
  • melodic
  • euphonious
  • discordant
  • screeching
  • gravelly
  • harmonious
  • sweet
  • pungent
  • acrid
  • delicious
  • disgusting
  • appetizing
  • fresh
  • stale
  • fruity
  • tantalizing
  • delicious
  • sour
  • sweet
  • savoury
  • salty
  • spoiled
  • bitter
  • earthy
  • spicy
  • bland
  • soft
  • creamy
  • rubbery
  • firm
  • cool/hot
  • unctuous
  • porous/smooth
  • knobby
  • sticky
  • dry/moist

Providing good details in a descriptive paragraph also rests on the idea that a writer must show and not tell the reader. While good details in a paragraph are important, the most essential part of a descriptive paragraph is the reason for writing the paragraph. Since descriptive paragraphs should explain to the reader the importance of what is being described, in addition to helping the reader picture it, the author must show the reader how and why something is significant rather than simply telling the reader. A good writer helps the reader picture what they are describing; however, a better writer shows the reader the purpose or reason for describing something. Consider the differences between the sentences below:

Example 1: Ever since grade school, I have always been nervous during tests.

Example 2: Staring blankly at my exam, I tapped my pencil rapidly on the side of my desk and desperately tried to focus. Mustering up some courage, I wrote an answer to the second question. Just as quickly, I erased the answer frantically, not wanting to leave a trace of it on the blank white paper. As the teacher announced that time was almost up, I remembered the taunt of my evil grade-school teacher: “You’ll never pass this test. Just give up already.” The memory of her words paralyzed my mind. Even more panic-stricken than before, I stared wildly at my blank test, trying to remember what the teacher had said in class last week or what I had read in the textbook.

While the first example does not explain how the narrator is nervous, it also fails to show why this nervousness is important. Ultimately, the first example tells and does not show the reader how the narrator is nervous or why this reaction is important. Meanwhile, the second example not only shows how the narrator expresses this nervousness (tapping the pencil on the desk, erasing answers, etc.), it begins to show why this is significant by relating it to earlier experiences in the narrator’s life. Through this connection, the writer is beginning to develop the description and the importance of the test-taking nervousness. The second example describes the experiences from grade school that led to this current bout of test-taking anxiety.

By showing and not telling the reader and by using descriptive language that appeals to the five senses, descriptive paragraphs provide the reader with a detailed account and the significance of something. Thus, this something being described is the most important aspect of the descriptive paragraph. Generally, descriptive paragraphs describe one of four somethings: a person, a place, an object, or an event.

Like any other descriptive paragraph, the most important aspect of a person paragraph is the reason for writing it. Have you ever read a book or article for school wondering what the point is? Perhaps even feeling disinterested because of what you felt was a lack of point or reason for reading or even writing the book, poem, article, etc.? Essentially, the same can be true for your own paragraphs if you do not write with a purpose. In choosing the person you want to write about, you have a reason for the choice you have made. It is your job as the writer to show the reader your point. Why have you chosen this person instead of another? What makes them interesting? You must draw your readers into your paragraph just as every other author draws their readers into their work, even if your only audience is your instructor. Remember, instructors do not like reading pointless writing any more than you do!

Thus, whenever writing a descriptive paragraph about a person, you must ask yourself: Why did I choose this person? What makes this person special? Is it a memory? Which of this person’s characteristics has inspired me to write about them? In answering these questions, you not only find the reason or purpose for writing your paragraph, but you also inadvertently discover how to format your paragraph as well. Generally, paragraphs can be formatted in a number of different ways. The formatting of a paragraph rests almost entirely on what you are trying to do or say within your writing. For instance, let us consider the answer to some of the questions provided above.

Imagine that you have decided to write your descriptive paragraph about your aunt because you spent your summers with her when you were younger. Let’s say that, during one of your visits, she taught you how to swim in the lake behind her house, and this is one of the fondest memories from your childhood. In this case, your descriptive paragraph would be a chronological account of this experience. You would organize your paragraph around the experience by having an introductory and concluding sentence that indicate the topic and purpose of your paragraph while detailing the event in the body of the paragraph. For instance, in a descriptive paragraph about your aunt, the introductory and concluding sentence would indicate that this memory was the highlight of your childhood while the body sentences would describe the event in chronological order. Since this is a descriptive paragraph about a person and not an event, you must be sure to centre your discussion of the event on the person involved; the person who made the event special.

However, you could also write a descriptive paragraph about your aunt that details some of your favourite characteristics about her. Perhaps you want your paragraph to describe a few reasons why your aunt is your favourite relative. In this paragraph, you would focus on the several characteristics that show why your aunt is so important to you. To do so, you may choose to explain briefly an event that supports one characteristic. For instance, if you want to show that your aunt is spontaneous and that this is one of your favourite things about her, you may choose to describe a day when she woke you up early to go on an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment trip to the beach. Through describing this event in one of your body sentences, you help support your claim that your aunt is spontaneous.

Table 3.2 Examples of different ways to organize information about a person
Focus of the paragraphWhat will the paragraph talk about?How to organize the paragraph
An eventThe summer your aunt taught you to swim is one of your fondest childhood memories.You would organize your paragraph around this event and how it has made your aunt more important to you.
Personal characteristics
  1. spontaneous
  2. fun-loving
  3. easygoing
You would organize your paragraph around the main reasons why your aunt is your favourite relative with each of these characteristics serving as a sentence.

Much like a person descriptive paragraph, the most important aspect of a descriptive paragraph about a place is your reason for writing it. Consider all of the places you have been to in your life—not only the places you have visited on vacation, but also those that you visit in everyday life. Every day, or at least during the school week, how many different places do you go? After leaving home, do you stop to get breakfast or coffee along the way, or do you stop and pick up a friend? Do you spend the majority of your day at school? If so, do you leave campus to get lunch? How about after later in the day? Do you go straight home? Go to the gym? Pick your kids up from school? Considering all the places you visit in one day, which would you pick to write about and why? These are the most important questions to answer when writing your place descriptive paragraph, and answering them will help you decide the organization of your paragraph.

The organization of a descriptive paragraph about a place is much like that of a descriptive paragraph about a person. Thus, there are two main organizational schemes that you can choose from when composing a descriptive paragraph about a place: one that focuses on certain characteristics of the place, or one that focuses on a specific event (or set of events) related to the place. For instance, for the first type of organization, you would focus on the reasons—or characteristics—why you like or dislike a place. For the second type, you would focus on the events that explain why this place is important to you. For example, if you were writing a descriptive paragraph about Barkerville, Table 3.3 describes the two ways in which you could organize your paragraph.

Table 3.3 Examples of different ways to organize information about a place
Focus of the paragraphWhat will the paragraph talk about?How to organize the paragraph
An eventA high school trip you took with your grade 11 history class to learn about the history of the gold rush in British Columbia.You would organize your paragraph around this event and how it sparked your interest in museums.
Characteristics of a place
  1. Actors
  2. Story telling
  3. Historic buildings
You would organize your paragraph around the main reasons why you enjoyed Barkerville with each of these characteristics serving as a body sentence.

While it may not matter which type or organization you choose, you must always make the place the focus of your paper. Thus, be sure the events or characteristics you describe in the paragraph do not outshine the importance of the place they are describing. For instance, following the example above, when talking about listening to the actors at Barkerville, do not focus too much on tours you have experienced at other museums. While comparing use of actors to give tours at Barkerville does stress how much better they are, do not let tours at other museums distract from your discussion of Barkerville. Additionally, remember to stress why the place being described is important to you regardless of the organizational scheme you choose.

By now, you may have noticed a pattern when it comes to organizing a descriptive paragraph. As you remember, you organize a descriptive paragraph about a person or place based either upon the characteristics of the subject or an event associated with it, and an object descriptive paragraph is no exception to this pattern. When writing a descriptive paragraph about an object, you must first decide why you have chosen this specific object to write about. In answering this question, you will know how to organize your paragraph. If you decide that an object is important to you because of the characteristics the object possesses, then you would organize the body of your paragraph around these characteristics or reasons. However, if an object is important to you because it was part of a significant event in your life, then you would produce body sentences that explain the event in chronological order.

For instance, imagine you wanted to write a descriptive paragraph about a tree at a local park. Consider the two ways of organizing this paragraph described in Table 3.4.

Table 3.4 Examples of different ways to organize information about an object
Focus of the paragraphWhat will the paragraph talk about?How to organize the paragraph
An eventYou shared your first kiss with your current partner under this tree.You would organize your paragraph around this event and how it has made this tree more important to you.
Characteristics of an object
  1. good for climbing
  2. has a tire swing
  3. displays the change in seasons
You would organize your paragraph around the main reasons why this is your favourite tree with each of these characteristics serving as a body sentence.

Although the organizational scheme you choose rests solely on the content you intend to include, the object must be the focus of the paragraph. Make sure the characteristics of an object or the retelling of an event do not overshadow the impact of the object being described. For example, when describing the event of your first kiss, you would need to make sure that you did not spend too much of your paragraph focusing on your partner. Additionally, when writing about an event connected to the object, be sure to connect the event to the significance of the object so that the event itself does not outshine the object being described. In focusing on not only the organization of the paragraph but also the significance of the object, the object descriptive paragraph that you compose will stress both the description and importance of the object being described.

Although the three previous types of descriptive paragraphs follow the same two organizational schemes, event descriptive paragraphs differ slightly. While other descriptive paragraphs either describe the person, place, or object in question or detail an event connected to it, event descriptive paragraphs chronologically describe an event from the past or from the future. Thus, descriptive paragraphs that focus on an event can either detail a memory that is significant or your hopes about an upcoming event. For instance, your event descriptive paragraph about a past event would describe a memory that is in some way important to you, be it positively or negatively. However, your event descriptive paragraph about a future event would describe something to occur in the future that you hope for or that you dread.

While the other descriptive paragraphs also employ organizational schemes that outline events connected to the subject, a descriptive paragraph about an event must focus on the event itself. For example, one could write a descriptive paragraph detailing the event of their high school graduation that could be based on a person, place, object, or event. If they wanted to stress a person through this event, they could write a paragraph that details how their graduation was important because it was the first time they saw their grandparents in ten years. If they wanted to stress a place, they could write a paragraph that details how important the park where the graduation took place is to them. If they wanted to stress an object through the event, they could write a paragraph that describes how important their high school diploma is to them. However, if they wanted to stress the importance of the graduation, or the event itself, they could write a paragraph that describes how all the things listed above—their grandparents, the park, and their diploma—all make the event significant. The different approaches they could take to a paragraph about the graduation are detailed in Table 3.5.

Table 3.5 The significance of each paragraph type
Paragraph TypePersonPlaceObjectEvent
Significance of ParagraphTheir grandparents are important to them because they came to the graduation.The central park in their hometown is important to them because they graduated there.Their diploma is important to them because it symbolizes their graduation.Their graduation itself is important because it was the first time they saw their grandparents in ten years, at the central park in their hometown, and when they received their diploma.

Hence, while in the other descriptive paragraphs, you must never let the event overshadow the significance of the person, place, or object being described, in an event descriptive paragraph, you should focus on how the people, place, and objects surrounding the event make it important. In this way, an event descriptive paragraph is a lot like the person, place, and object paragraphs. Thus, think of the objects, people, and place of an event as the characteristics that make the event important to you whenever you are constructing an event descriptive paragraph.

Review Questions

Person

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

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.
  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.

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

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