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
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.
Click the diagram to download this graphic
Digital Tools to enhance the learning
Collins English Thesaurus
Popplet web 2.0 tool and Popplet Lite iPad app (free)
CMap Tools download (free)
Mindmeister (free trial only)
Inspiration, Kidspiration, My Webspiration (30 day free trial only)
Inspiration has a template that may assist writers with thinking about their characters.
Finding pictures to observe
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 Sister, The Memories of Nena Mahele Sietu
e-asTTle has specific exemplars for descriptive writing included on their Marking resources section in downloadable pdf format.
For Excellence, the student needs to create an effective, crafted and controlled selection of writing that commands attention.
This involves developing, sustaining and structuring ideas effectively and using appropriate language features to create meaning, effects and audience engagement.
This student has effectively developed, sustained and structured ideas about what it means to be a young New Zealander in a multicultural society. The student does this by developing, sustaining and consolidating her understanding that legal confirmation of citizenship is not needed to validate her own sense of belonging (5) (7).
The student has built on the idea by providing relevant and often striking details (4), and structuring her compelling journey of discovery and awareness of her own cultural duality around the parallel journey through the day of the citizenship ceremony (1) (3).
The student has used appropriate language features to command attention by establishing and sustaining a distinctive personal voice that engages audience’s interest and empathy (1) (2) (6). There is a sustained, articulate and accurate use of effective language features, including first person narration, sentence variation and specific and relevant vocabulary choices and descriptions (3) (4) (7).
For a more secure Excellence, the student could craft the second half of the narrative to produce more syntactical variation, rather than the repetitive ‘I stand’, ‘I have sung’, ‘I chuckle’, etc.