Schreiner University, ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition—Descriptive Essay

Below appears an authoritative version of the guidelines for the Descriptive Essay assignment (Desc), superseding any previously published information regarding the Desc.


That the assignment sheet is long (as will be those that follow it) is understood. It is also an artifact of trying to be detailed and explicit about expectations for the project. Additionally, it is practice for attending closely to detail, which is likely to be of benefit

Writing well is the result of applying a set of skills developed through diligent practice, and it is of benefit throughout higher education, in professional life, and in life outside of work. Most every type of writing will benefit from the ability to give a targeted, detailed description, whether it is of components at the beginning of a process, procedures in a training or other manual, plans for business operations, reports made to employers and legal officials, or works of narrative fiction. Offering practice in developing such a targeted, detailed description is one purpose of the Desc; another is to foster the sustained attention to detail and consideration of wording upon which good writing in any genre and fine work in any profession rely.

Completing the Desc will require students to do a number of things:

Information about each follows, along with a copy of the relevant grading rubric and notes.

Identify a Topic

Descriptive prose works best when it focuses on specific items—and, on a human scale, a smaller item or a smaller part of a larger item will generally permit of more detailed description. Keeping that in mind, and keeping in mind that writing tends to work best when the writer has a personal investment in the writing being done, students in Dr. Elliott’s Fall 2016 section of ENGL 1301 at Schreiner University will be describing a place with which they are familiar and in which they are invested in some way. That is, they will be describing a place of some personal significance to them, whether one they currently visit or one they recall clearly. (The description will inform later papers, so sincere, diligent work on it is strongly recommended.)

The place selected for the assignment should be no larger than a single room; the Desc will be relatively brief, after all, and so it cannot treat a large space. It should also be one in which the writer has spent or currently spends a fair amount of time, so that its features are familiar and easily observed or recalled. And it should be one that carries powerful emotional valence for the writer; the room should be one that has seen prominent moments in the writer’s life, even if they were not recognized as such at the time.

Although neither exhaustive nor restrictive, the types of rooms below offer beginning points for thinking about topics to select:

  • Childhood bedroom
  • Current bedroom
  • Deer blind (I have had students write about them)
  • Dorm room
  • Employer’s office
  • First apartment living room
  • Hospital room
  • Jail cell
  • Lawyer’s office
  • Legislator’s office
  • Medical office exam room
  • Parents’ or grandparents’ kitchen
  • Personal office
  • Scary basement
  • Tractor cab (I have had students write about them)

Other rooms could be readily treated, so long as they are familiar, of manageable size, and associated with strong emotion.

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Examine the Topic

Once a given room is identified, it must be examined, either in memory or (preferably) in person, as effective description comes from intimate familiarity with the thing described and attention to the details of its composition and presentation. The examiner will benefit from taking notes about what is seen, heard, smelt, felt, and possibly tasted; having a record of sensory impressions will make later composition easier. And they need not confine themselves to impressions of the room; since the place to be examined is supposed to be one of emotional resonance, the emotions and memories evoked by it, as well as their physical effects on the examiner, are worth noting.

In short, the more details that can be noted, the better, as having more material to work with will make the writing easier later on.

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Develop a Specific Impression

Having a great many details to report is necessary to give a full accounting, but simply presenting details will not give a sense of the place being described—or not one that many readers will find compelling or even necessarily intelligible. Instead, the details need to be selected and presented according to a governing principle. That is, they should foster and support a dominant, specific impression of the place being described—and that means that such an impression needs to be developed.

To generate effective description, the writer will need to come up with a specific angle or impression to convey. In effect, the writer needs to generate a thesis, something on the order of “This place is like Д or “This place is one of Þ.” Having such a thesis will help the writer select and present details in a way that serves a useful end, one that makes those details more likely to engage readers than to bid them reject the writing. (Think about bad fanfiction. Much of it is bad because it bogs down in unfocused detail. Do not be a bad fanfiction writer, and do not emulate such a writer, either.)

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Apply the Specific Impression to the Details

Armed with a set of details and a specific impression to convey, it becomes time to use the impression to select and shape details. That is, those details that already align with the impression or which can be convincingly rephrased to support it should be indicated; the rest should be stricken. (And if few or no details remain available after such striking, perhaps a different impression might be selected.) Any rephrasing that needs to be done should be done, so that what results is a list of details that supports the dominant impression the writer wants to convey. Such a list will be the material from which a convincing, engaging description can be built.

Writers should keep their audiences in mind at all times as they work on their writing, as the readership of a paper will substantially influence what materials will be taken as supportive, and to what degree. For the Desc, the primary reader to be addressed is a general public in the United States of the early twenty-first century, such as reads news sources like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Such readers are unfamiliar with the room being described, living in a different place than allows access to the room, and are college-educated but not likely to be specialists in either the professional purposes to which the room is put (if it is such a room) or English studies.

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Compose the Desc PV

Taken together, the four items noted above constitute a sequence of prewriting that should guide student thinking about the topic and the desired approach to it. That is, the aforementioned do not produce deliverable writing in themselves, but they lead towards the first deliverable for the project: the Desc PV.

The Desc PV should be a reasonably complete description of the selected topic, one that conveys the dominant impression about the topic to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should be able to read the Desc PV and get a clear idea of the chosen room and its importance to the writer without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). The dominant impression may be explicit (i.e., stated openly) or implicit (i.e., hinted at)—although it must be noted that implicit ideas represent higher-level and therefore more difficult writing. Details, both in content and in phrasing, should be presented in such a way as to support that impression; this will generally mean moving through them in a reasonable spatial order. Again, readers have to be able to follow along easily and well.

The Desc PV should be approximately 975 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should bring a Desc PV that represents the writer’s best work to class as a typed, physical copy on 12 September 2016. Class that day will be taken up with peer review, during which other writers will read and comment upon the content and organization (not the mechanics) of the paper, making suggestions for improvement and indicating places where the paper works well—and explaining the comments so that the underlying principles can be used in future writing.

As peer review progresses, the instructor will call for individual papers, checking to see if they are present as requested and whether or not, in general terms, they do what they need to do. Time constraints in class will prevent detailed reading by the instructor during peer review, so specific comments will be few, but the setting does allow for a holistic sense of each paper’s direction to be developed. That sense will be noted as the score for a minor assignment grade; the score will conform to the grading scale in Table 2 of the course syllabus. (Obviously, those students who do not arrive in class with their Desc PVs in hand will not be able to receive any helpful score for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the Desc PV is a work in progress. Changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as opportunities to improve writing techniques and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers. Also, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the Desc PV into the Desc RV

After peer review, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their readers, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their descriptions of their topics, enhancing the detailed support of the dominant impression about those topics and ensuring that their papers encourage reading rather than interfering with it. The result will become the Desc RV.

The Desc RV should (still) be a reasonably complete description of the selected topic, one that conveys the dominant impression about the topic to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the Desc RV and get a clear idea of the chosen room and its importance to the writer without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). The dominant impression may be explicit (i.e., stated openly) or implicit (i.e., hinted at)—although it must be noted that implicit ideas represent higher-level and therefore more difficult writing. Details, both in content and in phrasing, should be presented in such a way as to support that impression; this will generally mean moving through them in a reasonable spatial order. Again, readers (still) have to be able to follow along easily and well.

The Desc RV should be approximately 975 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the Desc RV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 16 September 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below for a minor assignment grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the work. (Obviously, those students who do not submit the Desc RV in timely fashion should not expect to receive any helpful score or commentary for the assignment. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that the Desc RV is still a work in progress. Some changes to it are therefore also expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as more opportunities to improve writing techniques further and to enhance the connections between writer and topic and writer and readers yet more. Also, again, see Note 2, below.

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Revise the Desc RV into the Desc FV

After receiving instructor feedback, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their reader, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their descriptions of their topics, enhancing the detailed support of the dominant impression about those topics and ensuring that their papers encourage reading rather than interfering with it. The result will become the Desc FV.

The Desc FV should (still) be a reasonably complete description of the selected topic, one that conveys the dominant impression about the topic to a primary reader belonging to the general public of the United States in the early twenty-first century. That is, readers should (still) be able to read the Desc FV and get a clear idea of the chosen room and its importance to the writer without having to ask the writer additional questions (although wanting to ask the writer additional questions is often a sign of engaging writing). The dominant impression may be explicit (i.e., stated openly) or implicit (i.e., hinted at)—although it must be noted that implicit ideas represent higher-level and therefore more difficult writing. Details, both in content and in phrasing, should be presented in such a way as to support that impression; this will generally mean moving through them in a reasonable spatial order. Again, readers (still) have to be able to follow along easily and well.

The Desc FV should be approximately 975 words in length (+/- 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations (see Note 1, below). It should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with the first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page on the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of the Desc FV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time on 23 September 2016. The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened and read by the instructor; other file formats potentially present difficulties in that regard, and a paper that cannot be read cannot receive a useful score or commentary. It will be assessed according to the grading rubric below as a major assignment worth 10 % of the total course grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide further improvements to the writer’s technique. (Please note the “Late Work” and “Revisions” sections of the course syllabus.)

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Grading Rubric

Assessment of the Desc PV is discussed above. The rubric that will be applied to the Desc RV and the Desc FV appears here: ENGL 1301 Desc Rubric.

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Notes

  1. Because the Desc is to be written about a particular place, recalled or directly observed, no recourse to outside materials is expected. If any outside materials are used in the essay, however, they must be attested in accordance with the guidelines expressed by the Modern Language Association of America. Failure to do so may be regarded as an academic integrity violation, with potentially adverse effects.
  2. Consulting with the instructor and/or with the Writing Center throughout the process of composition is likely to be of benefit. No specific grade item will attach itself to doing so, but past practice suggests that those writers who do seek such input and attention generate far better writing than those who do not (which, for the grade-conscious, translates to higher scores).
  3. Samples of descriptions in the same vein as the Desc are available. One has been drafted for the course and appears here as “Sample Descriptive Essay: Filling Weir 209.” Others can be found in such places as

    The formatting and length on display will necessarily differ from those required of students in the course. Even so, they offer useful models to follow during the process of composition and should be consulted to that end.

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Geoffrey B. Elliott
6 September 2016

Updated to include new sample essay.

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