Rhetorical Patterns - Description

The Rhetorical Patterns - Organizing Essays for Different Rhetorical Situations

The following pages will provide you with several effective ways of organizing information in your essays. Oftentimes, when you know who your audience is and what your purpose is for writing (which is called your rhetorical situation), you can begin to consider the organization of what is going to be in your paper, how you will introduce your paper, and what to write for your conclusion. The following rhetorical patterns will help you answer these questions.  

Narration  |  Description  |  Process  |  Exemplification  |  Classification  |  Comparison and Contrast
Cause and Effect  |  Persuasion and Argument


Definition: A description paper provides either objective or subjective information (or a combination of both) about something so that the reader has a full understanding of the thing based on the information.

Description: When you want to describe something to someone and you want to avoid using emotions or bias, use an objective description. For an objective description, you want to use language in such a way to show tangible things (like a dormitory room, for instance) in a way so that anyone can understand its arrangement and function. Many people write objective descriptions of their automobile accidents so that the insurance companies can understand what happened. A subjective description, on the other hand, normally uses the physical senses to illustrate the thing. For subjective feelings, do not avoid your emotions and your biases; use them to convey the thing’s dominant impression. 

Conventions: A primary concern should be with the purpose and the audience of the description: should you use objective, subjective, or a combination of both to fulfill your goals and meet your readers’ needs? Remember that your readers will get confused if you say that the painting you are objectively describing is pretty, since pretty is not only a matter of personal taste but a superficial generalization. 


An objective description normally answers the following questions: 

  • What is this thing? 
  • What does it do? How does it work/function?
  • What does it look like? (Size, color, shape, and so on) 
  • Does it have major and minor parts? Can you divide it into sections? 

An  subjective  description normally answers the following questions: 

  • What does this thing look like to you?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Does this thing effect or act within its environment? 
  • What is this thing’s dominant impression to you? 


In the introduction, many readers will expect to find a definition or brief overview of the thing being described. For a subjective description, use the introduction to tell your readers what the dominant impression is. A thesis statement normally provides your readers with the cues that will organize your description. For instance, if you are describing your home, you might write, “My home has two floors with six rooms and two bathrooms”; this will cue your readers to your body paragraph organization, which will likely describe one floor fully and then proceed to the next floor. For this type of example, you might dedicate one room to each body paragraph, or economize when rooms are similar and put them both into the same paragraph. Remember to use transitional words so that your readers will understand that you are moving from one spot to the next. 

Another organization system would have you divide something into major parts, dedicating a paragraph to each, and if necessary, using either the same paragraph or subsequent paragraphs to describe minor parts. Insure that you use concrete language and precise details (for instance, use “ten pounds” instead of “big and heavy”). 

A conclusion for a subjective description normally shifts the focus back to the person experiencing and describing the thing; whereas, an objective description will provide an overview of (the parts of) the thing that was described.

Writers use descriptions in two rhetorical situations: 

Objectively, to provide as much information without feeling or judgment so that virtually every reader can agree with all the elements of your description. For instance, a police officer might use an objective description to relate the events occurring in a traffic accident, when the officer is describing the event for a court of insurance company to figure out who was to blame. 

Subjectively, to give as close as possible an account of what being with something or near something or within a situation is like for you. Your personal feelings and emotions are crucial for readers to understand what the experience means. Let’s continue with the car accident scenario from above. If a person involved in the accident was in court, the person might explain to the judge or jury what being in the accident did to the person, which might involve explaining the trauma and horror of the accident and the psychological effects of the accident. Explaining psychological and emotional experiences involves giving a dominant impression so that the feelings and senses have a common thread. 

What is the difference between an objective and a subjective description?

There are two different kinds of description: Subjective and Objective. Both kinds involve looking for and creating a dominant impression. A subjective description involves your reactions, and an objective description involves reactions and perceptions that virtually everyone would agree upon. For instance, you might have had a bad experience with a dentist when you were younger; let us say the dentist drilled and drilled without giving you any Novocain. Close your eyes, walk into his office, and let’s examine it according to an objective description. 

An objective description can be called a technical description because it is like the descriptions you can find in business manuals and government publications. Normally, an objective description uses fact-based language (i.e., it was 75 degrees in the room) and avoids emotional, judgmental, and imaginative language (i.e., it was too hot in the room). 

An objective description of a dentist’s office would show you the dentist’s chair with that spit sink thing hanging off it, a stainless steel tray with several instruments on it, and a counter along the back wall, with a glass jar with cotton gauze in it. No matter how your readers feel about the dentist, they can all agree that this is a dentist’s office and these are the medical tools that one finds in this kind of office. 

A subjective description can be called a personal description because it grows out of the writer's perspective and experiences. Subjective descriptions help describe things while at the same time allowing readers to perceive what the writer is feeling while making the description. This essential feeling that gives rise to the entire description is called the dominant impression. Normally, a subjective description uses detailed language (i.e., the green wallpaper looked like leaves in the summer sun) and does not shy away from emotional and personal language (i.e., the wallpaper reminded me of childhood days reading by the lake). Subjective descriptions bring your readers into your imagination so that they can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell your subject. 

A subjective description of the dentist’s office would show the dentist’s chair propped up in the middle of the room with a bright, interrogation light over it. Hanging off the chair, like a threatening animal, is the filthy spit sink, which makes a hateful gurgling noise. On the other arm of the chair is a cold metallic tray with what looks like dozens of sharp surgical instruments gleaming under the light, and along the back wall runs a counter covered with frightening tools gleaming in the bright fluorescent lights. 

You can sense by the way this description is written that the dominant impression is that this is a dangerous, threatening place that the writer does not want to be within a mile of. 

How do I develop a dominant impression?

What is the dominant impression you are trying to convey? This can be answered for an objective description by determining what the thing’s primary function or primary quality is. For a subjective description, this can be answered by determining how the thing makes you feel.

What kind of organization can I use for my body paragraphs?

Once you have determined how you will describe the thing, consider the organization of your description. Sometimes you may want to describe something spatially, chronologically, or logically. 

Below are the most common organizations for your body paragraphs:

Spatial Organization

  • From left to right
  • From top to bottom
  • From outside to inside
  • From north to south, east to west
  • From largest to smallest, bigger to smaller
  • From one room to another room
  • From nearest to farthest or vice versa

How do I begin my introduction and develop my main point or thesis?

After you have answered the above questions and begun your draft of the body paragraphs, consider what it is that your readers need to know before you begin describing. Should you provide an overview or should you talk about the reasons for writing a description? Remember the age-old advice: 

Consider your purpose and what your audience already knows.

In your introduction, make it clear what is being described, why it is being described, and, perhaps, what is not being described. Your main point or thesis sentence for your description should concisely convey your dominant impression. If you are writing a technical/objective description of a car accident, your thesis might read like this:

One life was lost in a four-car accident.

Clearly, the most important element—the dominant impression readers take away from the objective description--will be the tragedy that led to one person’s loss of life.

For a subjective description of a dentist’s office, you might write:

Danger seems to pulsate off of everything in the dentist’s office.

How can I write a strong conclusion?

Your conclusion certainly should sum up the major elements or aspects of the thing that you described. Make sure that you include all the major things and that you put them in the same order that you wrote them in the body paragraphs. While many people say they want to see the thesis statement expressed once again in the conclusion, simply cutting and pasting it exactly certainly makes this a boring convention. Many novice writers wonder what to do in the conclusion after they have restated the thesis. If your dominant impression has been made clear, and the thing you are describing is obvious, then there is no reason to repeat yourself, especially since your readers may get turned off by such an obvious repetition. Instead, your readers would rather hear about other, tangential things (but without you bringing up anything substantial that should have been included in the essay’s body), such as:

What might happen in the future

What this all means to the rest of us

What another person might think or describe

Where you see yourself in the future with this thing you described, and so on.

A little analysis or speculation in a conclusion enlivens this “farewell” paragraph much better than cutting and pasting your thesis statement.

Revision Checklist for Description Essays

  1.    Which best serves your purpose, your assignment, and your readers’ needs, emphasizing your feelings and reactions or describing in a detached, unemotional way?  Which should you use, a subjective or an objective description?
  2.    What is the dominant impression you have from the thing you are describing? What have you included to convey this dominant impression to your readers? Do the details in your description support the dominant impression? 
  3.    What is your main point or thesis statement? Have you provided this in one sentence? 
  4.    How have you organized the body of your paper? Is this organization clear at all times? 
  5.    Have you given all the needed details? Have you given any unneeded information you can delete? 
  6.    Are there any clichés or generalizations in your description? Do you use concrete language as the foundation for your description? Do you use other kinds of language to evoke reactions in your readers (subjective)?