Describing things, actions and events
What is descriptive writing?
Descriptive writing states the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ of a topic. This type of writing is essentially informative and expository. It presents facts and details relevant to the topic or research question.
Most academic writing – whether an essay, report or thesis – requires some descriptive content.
Accurate, concise and clear descriptions of relevant facts and details will set the groundwork for you to develop a critical analysis and evaluation in your writing.
When should I use descriptive writing?
There are many reasons and purposes for including description in your writing – some of these will be broad and others will be particular to your discipline. Generally, you may have multiple reasons for including description in your writing, such as to:
- provide essential background information
- summarise a theory
- report main features of a phenomenon
- outline the “story so far”
- recount an event, occurrence, situation
- describe results, findings
- state when or where details
- recount a chronology or a sequence
- outline methods
- give factual observations
- summarise the main points
- explain functions and processes.
Hints for effective descriptive writing View
Summarise the information and details using your own words – that is, paraphrase. It’s important to paraphrase accurately to ensure clear communication and your academic integrity.
Incorporate accurate, subject-specific vocabulary where appropriate. Using subject-specific vocabulary will add preciseness and credibility to your descriptive content.
Ensure that the information and details presented are accurate and up-to-date – double-check that these are correct. Inaccurate content will undermine the effectiveness of your description.
Citations and References
Include in-text citations and references for the information and details presented. These will substantiate the validity of your description. Use the reference system prescribed for your subject.
Check that the information and details are logically organised. This is especially essential when you’re describing a chronology, process, method, etc.
Review and edit to ensure that your descriptions are clearly and concisely expressed. Refer to the section on descriptive writing language features in this resource.
Consider formatting elements to make your description clearer; for example, include numbered sub-headings, use bullet points if (and where) appropriate.
Consider visual elements like flow charts, infographics, various types of graphs and charts, and annotated images to present your description if appropriate.
Check if there is enough essential and relevant description. Have you included the main facts and information?
Too much description
Check if there is too much description. Strike out any description that is not essential. See the note below for a strategy to deal with too much description.
Writing too much description is a common trap in academic writing. While description is necessary to provide the ‘what’, the majority of your writing should be analytical and evaluative to explore the ‘why’ of the topic. You can easily check the balance of descriptive and analytical/evaluative content in your writing by:
(a) highlighting descriptions in yellow
(b) highlighting analysis and evaluation in green.
If you have too much yellow (that is, description) you’ll need to edit the descriptive sections down by checking for relevance and repetition of information and details.