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Descriptive Writing

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Last updated by Jill Hammonds

Purpose   Bald eagle - focus for descriptive writing

Descriptive writing is often used in conjunction with other styles of writing e.g.

  • to describe a character, place or to set a mood in a narrative or recount
  • to add detail to a report e.g. the life cycle of a butterfly
  • to describe the appearance of a stage in transactional writing e.g whip the egg whites until soft points form in the foamy mixture
  • to tempt the reader in persuasive writing or advertisements

Language Features

The writer is setting out to create vivid pictures in the mind of the reader, therefore the language needs to

  • Show rather than tell (telling relies on simple exposition - the man was old, where showing creates the understanding or feeling though evocative or emotive writing -  his matted hair and beard bristling or scrambled to the bow with a speed belying his age.  Showing involves the reader, requiring him or her to bring their own knowledge and experience in to create the vivid pictures - telling is more passive.)  Check out Robert J Sawyer's work on Show not Tell.
  • Use precisely chosen vocabulary (precise nouns, adjectives, action verbs and adverbs) and language features such as simile and metaphor, but be careful not to have your writing "dripping with superlatives" - less is often more.
  • Use the 5 senses - what can you see, hear, smell, touch, taste?

Planning for descriptive writing

The descriptive writing will follow the style and process for the specific writing (e.g. narrative, report, recipe, recount) so the planning focus will be on developing the rich vocabulary that will create vivid imagery for the reader.

Some processes that might be useful in scaffolding this for the writer are:

  • Read quality descriptions to your students and then unpack what makes them effective.
  • Close your eyes and imagine the scene, character or article that you are describing to get a really well defined, vivid image in your mind.  Brainstorm words that come to mind to describe what you are visualising.
  • Where appropriate, find the object that you are describing e.g. the monarch butterfly, caterpillar, pupa and study each of its parts in order to describe the whole.  Or find pictures online.
  • Use the 5 senses to add more than just visual cues.
  • Use an online thesaurus to find more expressive options - richer verbs, more precise nouns, adjectives, adverbs, synonymns.
  • Select the best for each aspect of your description - don't use them all just because you can.
  • Write simple descriptive phrases and then work these into a descriptive sentence or paragraph.
  • Review your writing and add, delete or replace sections until you have created a vivid picture.
  • Have someone else read your description and give you feedback on how well they were able to create the image in their heads.  Was there anything they didn't understand?  Do they have any suggestions that would improve your description?  Teachers, you could add your class blog page to our online feedback space where these descriptions are up for review and feedback.  Check out Etherpad using the chat box for feedback, or use your class blog, wiki or LMS site with a prelude that explains that the writing is still at draft stage and seeking feedback before finalising and editing.

Planning descriptive writing
Click the diagram to download this graphic

Digital Tools to enhance the learning

Online thesaurus:
Merriam-Webster Thesaurus
Collins English Thesaurus

Brainstorming tools
Popplet web 2.0 tool and Popplet Lite iPad app (free)
Bubbl.us (free)
CMap Tools download (free)
Mindmeister (free trial only)
InspirationKidspirationMy Webspiration (30 day free trial only)

Character tools
Inspiration has a template that may assist writers with thinking about their characters.

Finding pictures to observe
Google Images


Check out the following exemplars on Literacy Online and TKI

Year 1 - My Chicken,
Year 2 - Cats
NZC Exemplars Level 1 ii My Mum Gives Me a Hug, Level 1 iii My Grandma has Curly Hair
Year 3 - Cheeky Charlie (character description) 
NZC Exemplars Level 2 My Nana is so Small, Our Caretaker
Year 7 - My Room Makeover (has some descriptive sections) 
NZC Exemplars Level 3 Dad has Green Eyes
NZC Exemplars Level 4 My Brother Kim, My Grandad Wears Slippers
NZC Exemplars Level 5 My Little SisterThe Memories of Nena Mahele Sietu

e-asTTle has specific exemplars for descriptive writing included on their Marking resources section in downloadable pdf format.