How to Write an Expressive or Descriptive Essay:

A Dozen Quick Hints


  1. 1. An expressive essay is about you, your thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories, and emotions. An expressive essay is written in the first person (I, me, and sometimes, we and us).  Use of the 2nd person (you, yours) is not appropriate in this kind of essay.
  2. An expressive essay is normally not subject to all the strict rules governing some other forms of college writing—for example, contractions and informal language might be allowable where they would not be permitted in informative writing. However, even though an expressive essay ordinarily uses a less formal style than other kinds of academic writing, you still must follow rules of grammar, spelling and word usage!  For example, do not call a person “that,” and make sure your sentence structure is correct.
  3. It is customary in an expressive essay to use dialogue. English almost always requires joining-words for dialogue or quotes. 
  4. In expressive and descriptive writing, use descriptive language—that is, describe people, places, things and ideas that you make reference to, and do not simply name them.  Think in terms of the five senses:

  5. A. Sight—Paint a word picture of what you are describing.  Try to do this well enough that if your audience reads your words and later encounters the same scene for the first time, they will have an “Aha!” moment of recognition,

    B. Sounds—If appropriate, describe what you heard or hear in the situation you are writing about.

    C. Touch, smell and taste—If appropriate, describe these sensations as well. 

  6. In expressive essays, describe your feelings.  Use feeling words like: love, happiness (joy), sadness, pain (hurt), anger (fury), fear, pleasure, loneliness, excitement, comfort (safety, relaxation, contentment), shock, pride, scorn (contempt), shame (guilt, regret, modesty, shyness), boredom, fatigue (exhaustion, feeling tired, sleepiness), jealousy (envy, greed, ambition) and interest (curiosity, desire), or verbs describing these feelings.  As you write, own your feelings.  Do not write “there was some anger in the air about this betrayal,”  Write “I became angry because they betrayed me.”  However, do not write anything too personal to be shared with the class.

  7. Let your words carry the load, and do not rely on exclamation points. Even if the situation you describe is very exciting or emotional, avoid exclamations like: "Wow!"  "Damn!"  "Oh God!"  or the like.  And, never USE ALL CAPITALS to emphasize an exclamation.  This points you out as a childish writer. 

  8. Cut the fat. When you use adjectives be sure they are colorful and descriptive, and that each one pulls its own weight. Avoid “fat,” which in this type of writing means extra adjectives that add bulk without really describing anything.  For instance, to describe a slice of fruit pie as “tart and steaming, topped with a dollop of sweet, white whipped cream slowly melting down the sides of the pie” is both descriptive and appetizing. To describe the same pie as “deliciously prepared, attractively sliced, beautifully topped and elegantly served” is not descriptive—it is simply verbal fat, and thus bad writing..

  9.  In. expressive writing, whenever possible prefer active verbs. Active verbs include almost every English verb except the “verb to be” (am, is, are, will be), the verb “to go” (go, going, went) and the verbs “to have“ or “to get.”  Experts suggest that writers should look for nouns ending in “-ment” or “-tion” and transform them into verbs.  E.g., change “I had a conversation with the professor” to “I conversed with the professor.”  Replace “She had an abortion” with “She chose to abort her pregnancy.” However, do not strain for this—to write “the pie had a dollop of sweet, white whipped cream on top” is descriptive.  “The pie was gloriously crowned with a fluffy, gleaming cloud of exquisitely sweet, snowy white whipped cream” is just silly and phony, and sounds more like the writing of the 1800’s than that of the 21st century. Nobody writes like that any more except for English class. Think of your audience and do them a favor: spare them from word-games. 


  10. Avoid stringing more than three adjectives together.  To describe the pie as “tart, juicy, steaming, sweet, hot and delicious” strains the limits of what is allowable in today’s English, even though each adjective by itself is descriptive. If you must do this, there are other techniques to use that will work better, such as placing “and” between every other adjective.  Long strings of adjectives make the text look as though you are straining to stretch it, or make you look like a bad, wordy writer showing off your English vocabulary knowledge.


  11. Avoid poofy, general description.  Do not write “She quickly drove away,” or “Many of us went to the party.”  Instead, write “She jumped into her Porsche and burned rubber to get away,” or “At least a dozen of us attended the party.” Your descriptions should be as specific as possible without becoming scientific-sounding. Numbers are the great lie-detector, but be sure you have information to back up each number you use.  Never write “he was  three quarters drunk,” unless you administered a breathalyzer test on him to verify such a precise conclusion.


  12. Avoid adverbs unless absolutely necessary for description.  In contemporary English, adverbs are “fattier” than adjectives, and must be used with more care, even in expressive writing.  Never string two or more adverbs together with one verb, and never try to go back and insert extra adverbs where they are not needed—let your action verbs do the work instead. [Hint: Most adverbs end in –“ly,” like “greatly,” “quickly,” “gravely” or “absolutely.”] 


  13. Your expressive or descriptive essay must have conscious arrangement just like any other kind of serious writing. The most common tactic seems to be to organize an expressive essay chronologically (what happened first, what happened afterwards). If your paper is describing a static scene (like a painting or a snapshot), first describe the main figures or objects in the scene, then the background, then your reaction and the feelings it provokes in you.  Other arrangements also work well, including problem-solution-resolution, cause and effect, and order of importance.


    NOTE:  An expressive essay does not ordinarily involve research, and should not require a Works Cited page or in-text citations unless you were the author or subject of the works cited.

O.W. 12/05



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