A good descriptive paragraph is like a window into another world. Through the use of careful examples or details, an author can conjure a scene that vividly describes a person, place, or thing. The best descriptive writing appeals to multiple senses at once―smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing―and is found in both fiction and nonfiction.
In their own way, each of the following writers (three of them students, two of them professional authors) have selected a belonging or a place that holds special meaning to them. After identifying that subject in a clear topic sentence, they proceed to describe it in detail while explaining its personal significance.
A Friendly Clown
On one corner of my dresser sits a smiling toy clown on a tiny unicycle―a gift I received last Christmas from a close friend. The clown's short yellow hair, made of yarn, covers its ears but is parted above the eyes. The blue eyes are outlined in black with thin, dark lashes flowing from the brows. It has cherry-red cheeks, nose, and lips, and its broad grin disappears into the wide, white ruffle around its neck. The clown wears a fluffy, two-tone nylon costume. The left side of the outfit is light blue, and the right side is red. The two colors merge in a dark line that runs down the center of the small outfit. Surrounding its ankles and disguising its long black shoes are big pink bows. The white spokes on the wheels of the unicycle gather in the center and expand to the black tire so that the wheel somewhat resembles the inner half of a grapefruit. The clown and unicycle together stand about a foot high. As a cherished gift from my good friend Tran, this colorful figure greets me with a smile every time I enter my room.
Observe how the writer moves clearly from a description of the head of the clown to the body to the unicycle underneath. There aren't just sensory details for the eyes but also touch, in the description that the hair is made of yarn and the suit of nylon. Certain colors are specific, as in cherry-red cheeks and light blue, and descriptions help to visualize the object: the parted hair, the color line on the suit, and the grapefruit analogy. Dimensions overall help to provide the reader with the item's scale, and the descriptions of the size of the ruffle and bows on the shoes in comparison to what's nearby provide telling detail. The concluding sentence helps to tie the paragraph together by emphasizing the personal value of this gift.
The Blond Guitar
by Jeremy Burden
My most valuable possession is an old, slightly warped blond guitar―the first instrument I taught myself how to play. It's nothing fancy, just a Madeira folk guitar, all scuffed and scratched and fingerprinted. At the top is a bramble of copper-wound strings, each one hooked through the eye of a silver tuning key. The strings are stretched down a long, slim neck, its frets tarnished, the wood worn by years of fingers pressing chords and picking notes. The body of the Madeira is shaped like an enormous yellow pear, one that was slightly damaged in shipping. The blond wood has been chipped and gouged to gray, particularly where the pick guard fell off years ago. No, it's not a beautiful instrument, but it still lets me make music, and for that I will always treasure it.
Here, the writer uses a topic sentence to open his paragraph, then uses the following sentences to add specific details. The author creates an image for the mind's eye to travel across by describing the parts of the guitar in a logical fashion, from the strings on the head to the worn wood on the body.
He emphasizes its condition by the number of different descriptions of the wear on the guitar, such as noting its slight warp; distinguishing between scuffs and scratches; describing the effect that fingers have had on the instrument by wearing down its neck, tarnishing frets, and leaving prints on the body; listing both its chips and gouges and even noting their effects on the color of the instrument. The author even describes the remnants of missing pieces. After all that, he plainly states his affection for it.
by Barbara Carter
Gregory is my beautiful gray Persian cat. He walks with pride and grace, performing a dance of disdain as he slowly lifts and lowers each paw with the delicacy of a ballet dancer. His pride, however, does not extend to his appearance, for he spends most of his time indoors watching television and growing fat. He enjoys TV commercials, especially those for Meow Mix and 9 Lives. His familiarity with cat food commercials has led him to reject generic brands of cat food in favor of only the most expensive brands. Gregory is as finicky about visitors as he is about what he eats, befriending some and repelling others. He may snuggle up against your ankle, begging to be petted, or he may imitate a skunk and stain your favorite trousers. Gregory does not do this to establish his territory, as many cat experts think, but to humiliate me because he is jealous of my friends. After my guests have fled, I look at the old fleabag snoozing and smiling to himself in front of the television set, and I have to forgive him for his obnoxious, but endearing, habits.
The writer here focuses less on the physical appearance of her pet than on the cat's habits and actions. Notice how many different descriptors go into just the sentence about how the cat walks: emotions of pride and disdain and the extended metaphor of the dancer, including the phrases the "dance of disdain," "grace," and "ballet dancer." When you want to portray something through the use of a metaphor, make sure you are consistent, that all the descriptors make sense with that one metaphor. Don't use two different metaphors to describe the same thing, because that makes the image you're trying to portray awkward and convoluted. The consistency adds emphasis and depth to the description.
Personification is an effective literary device for giving lifelike detail to an inanimate object or an animal, and Carter uses it to great effect. Look at how much time she spends on the discussions of what the cat takes pride in (or doesn't) and how it comes across in his attitude, with being finicky and jealous, acting to humiliate by spraying, and just overall behaving obnoxiously. Still, she conveys her clear affection for the cat, something to which many readers can relate.
The Magic Metal Tube
by Maxine Hong Kingston
Once in a long while, four times so far for me, my mother brings out the metal tube that holds her medical diploma. On the tube are gold circles crossed with seven red lines each―"joy" ideographs in abstract. There are also little flowers that look like gears for a gold machine. According to the scraps of labels with Chinese and American addresses, stamps, and postmarks, the family airmailed the can from Hong Kong in 1950. It got crushed in the middle, and whoever tried to peel the labels off stopped because the red and gold paint came off too, leaving silver scratches that rust. Somebody tried to pry the end off before discovering that the tube falls apart. When I open it, the smell of China flies out, a thousand-year-old bat flying heavy-headed out of the Chinese caverns where bats are as white as dust, a smell that comes from long ago, far back in the brain.
This paragraph opens the third chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts," a lyrical account of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California. Notice how Kingston integrates informative and descriptive details in this account of "the metal tube" that holds her mother's diploma from medical school. She uses color, shape, texture (rust, missing paint, pry marks, and scratches), and smell, where she has a particularly strong metaphor that surprises the reader with its distinctness. The last sentence in the paragraph (not reproduced here) is more about the smell; closing the paragraph with this aspect adds emphasis to it. The order of the description is also logical, as the first response to the closed object is how it looks rather than how it smells when opened.
Inside District School #7, Niagara County, New York
by Joyce Carol Oates
Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz's desk was also positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.
In this paragraph (originally published in "Washington Post Book World" and reprinted in "Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art,") Joyce Carol Oates affectionately describes the one-room schoolhouse she attended from first through fifth grades. Notice how she appeals to our sense of smell before moving on to describe the layout and contents of the room. When you walk into a place, its overall smell hits you immediately, if it's pungent, even before you've taken in the whole area with your eyes. Thus this choice of chronology for this descriptive paragraph is also a logical order of narration, even though it differs from the Hong Kingston paragraph. It allows the reader to imagine the room just as if he or she was walking into it.
The positioning of items in relation to other items is on full display in this paragraph, to give people a clear vision of the layout of the place as a whole. For the objects inside, she uses many descriptors of what materials they are made from. Note the imagery portrayed by the use of the phrases "gauzy light," "toboggan," and "horse chestnuts." You can imagine the emphasis placed on penmanship study by the description of their quantity, the deliberate location of the paper squares, and the desired effect upon the students brought about by this location.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art." Kindle Edition, Reprint edition, HarperCollins e-books, March 17, 2009.