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5 Model

Descriptive
Paragraphs
Examples of Descriptive Writing
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By Richard Nordquist
The purpose of descriptive writingis to make our readers see, feel, and
hear what we have seen, felt, and heard. Whether we're describing a
person, a place, or a thing, our aim is to reveal a subject through vivid
and carefully selected details.
Each of the five paragraphs below responds, in its own way, to the
guidelines in How to Write a Descriptive Paragraph. The writers (three
of them students, two of them professional authors) have selected a
belonging or a place that holds special meaning to them, identified
that subject in a clear topic sentence, and then described it in detail
while explaining its personal significance.

In the following paragraph, observe how the writer moves clearly


from a description of the head of the clown (in sentences two, three,
and four), to the body (sentences five, six, seven, and eight), to the
unicycle underneath (sentence nine). Notice also how the concluding
sentence helps to tie the paragraph together by emphasizing the
personal value of this gift.

1) A Friendly Clown

On one corner of my dresser sits a smiling toy clown on a tiny


unicycle--a gift I received last Christmas from a close friend. The
clown's short yellow hair, made of yarn, covers its ears but is parted
above the eyes. The blue eyes are outlined in black with thin, dark
lashes flowing from the brows. It has cherry-red cheeks, nose, and
lips, and its broad grin disappears into the wide, white ruffle around its
neck. The clown wears a fluffy, two-tone nylon costume. The left side
of the outfit is light blue, and the right side is red. The two colors
merge in a dark line that runs down the center of the small outfit.

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Surrounding its ankles and disguising its long black shoes are big pink
bows. The white spokes on the wheels of the unicycle gather in the
center and expand to the black tire so that the wheel somewhat
resembles the inner half of a grapefruit. The clown and unicycle
together stand about a foot high. As a cherished gift from my good
friend Tran, this colorful figure greets me with a smile every time I
enter my room.

Here's the final version of the descriptive paragraph that appears in


the exercise Practice in Supporting a Topic Sentence with Specific
Details. Compare this version with the earlier one to see which
descriptions have been retained, what information has been omitted,
and how sentences have been reworded and rearranged.

2) The Blond Guitar

by Jeremy Burden
My most valuable possession is an old, slightly warped blond guitar--
the first instrument I taught myself how to play. It's nothing fancy, just
a Madeira folk guitar, all scuffed and scratched and finger-printed. At
the top is a bramble of copper-wound strings, each one hooked
through the eye of a silver tuning key. The strings are stretched down
a long, slim neck, its frets tarnished, the wood worn by years of
fingers pressing chords and picking notes. The body of the Madeira is
shaped like an enormous yellow pear, one that was slightly damaged
in shipping. The blond wood has been chipped and gouged to gray,
particularly where the pick guard fell off years ago. No, it's not a
beautiful instrument, but it still lets me make music, and for that I will
always treasure it.

In the next descriptive paragraph, the student writer focuses less on


the physical appearance of her pet than on the cat's habits and
actions.

3) Gregory

by Barbara Carter
Gregory is my beautiful gray Persian cat. He walks with pride and
grace, performing a dance of disdain as he slowly lifts and lowers
each paw with the delicacy of a ballet dancer. His pride, however,
does not extend to his appearance, for he spends most of his time
indoors watching television and growing fat. He enjoys TV
commercials, especially those for Meow Mix and 9 Lives. His
familiarity with cat food commercials has led him to reject generic
brands of cat food in favor of only the most expensive brands.
Gregory is as finicky about visitors as he is about what he eats,
befriending some and repelling others. He may snuggle up against
your ankle, begging to be petted, or he may imitate a skunk and stain
your favorite trousers. Gregory does not do this to establish his
territory, as many cat experts think, but to humiliate me because he is
jealous of my friends. After my guests have fled, I look at the old
fleabag snoozing and smiling to himself in front of the television set,
and I have to forgive him for his obnoxious, but endearing, habits.
The following paragraph opens the third chapter of Maxine Hong
Kingston'sThe Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among
Ghosts (Knopf, 1976), a lyrical account of a Chinese-American girl
growing up in California. Notice how Kingston integrates informative
and descriptive details in this account of "the metal tube" that holds
her mother's diploma from medical school.

4) The Magic Metal Tube

by Maxine Hong Kingston


Once in a long while, four times so far for me, my mother brings out
the metal tube that holds her medical diploma. On the tube are gold
circles crossed with seven red lines each--"joy" ideographs in abstract.
There are also little flowers that look like gears for a gold machine.
According to the scraps of labels with Chinese and American
addresses, stamps, and postmarks, the family airmailed the can from
Hong Kong in 1950. It got crushed in the middle, and whoever tried to
peel the labels off stopped because the red and gold paint come off
too, leaving silver scratches that rust. Somebody tried to pry the end
off before discovering that the tube falls apart. When I open it, the
smell of China flies out, a thousand-year-old bat flying heavy-headed
out of the Chinese caverns where bats are as white as dust, a smell that
comes from long ago, far back in the brain.

In this paragraph (originally published in Washington Post Book


World and reprinted in Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft,
Art [HarperCollins, 2003]), Joyce Carol Oates affectionately
describes the "single-room schoolhouse" she attended from first
through fifth grades. Notice how she appeals to our sense of smell
before moving on to describe the layout and contents of the room.

5) Inside District School #7, Niagara County, New


York

by Joyce Carol Oates


Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke
from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate
New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie,
the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by
ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away
since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz's desk was also
positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats,
smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by
metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed
beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse
chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag
hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the
blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw
our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that
beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.

How to Write a
Descriptive
Paragraph
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"You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear." (Sherlock
Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" by Arthur Conan Doyle). Statue of
Sherlock Holmes outside the Baker Street underground station in London
By Richard Nordquist
Look! Put simply, that's the watchword of this project and the
motto of all good writers: pay attention to the details
and show the reader what you mean. Specific details create
word pictures that can make writing more interesting and easier
to understand. In this project, you will practice organizing those
specific details into an effective descriptiveparagraph.
Guided by the steps below, you will begin by selecting one of
your belongings and then drafting a list of details that describe
it.

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Next, you will put these details into sentences and organize the
sentences into a paragraph. Finally, you will revise the
paragraph to make sure that it is unified and clearly organized.

For good examples of the finished product, see Model


Descriptive Paragraphs.
1) Find and Explore a Topic
Before you can write an effective descriptive paragraph, you
need to do two things:

find a good topic;


study the topic carefully (a strategy that we
callprobing).
For guidelines and examples, visitDiscovery Strategy: Probing
Your Topic.
2) Draft a Descriptive Paragraph
Once you have settled on a topic for your descriptive paragraph
and collected some details, you're ready to assemble those
details in a rough draft that begins with a topic sentence. You
will find a common model for organizing a description at Draft a
Descriptive Paragraph.
3) Revise a Descriptive Paragraph
Now you will revise your descriptive paragraph, concentrating
on its organization. That is, you will check to see that your
sentences follow a clear and logical order, each detail related to
the one that came before and leading to the one that follows.
These two exercises will give you practice in revising effectively:

Practice in Supporting a Topic Sentence with


Specific Details
Practice in Organizing a Descriptive Paragraph
4) Revise, Edit, and Proofread
You're almost done. It's now time to invite someone else (a
classmate, for example, or your instructor) to read your
descriptive paragraph and suggest ways to improve it. Taking
your reader's comments into consideration, revise the
paragraph one last time, using as a guide this Revision
Checklist for a Descriptive Paragraph. For examples of the
finished product, see Model Descriptive Paragraphs.

1) The Laundry Room

The windows at either end of the laundry room were open, but
no breeze washed through to carry off the stale odors of fabric
softener, detergent, and bleach. In the small ponds of soapy
water that stained the concrete floor were stray balls of
multicolored lint and fuzz. Along the left wall of the room stood
ten rasping dryers, their round windows offering glimpses of
jumping socks, underwear, and fatigues. Down the center of the
room were a dozen washing machines, set back to back in two
rows. Some were chugging like steamboats; others were
whining and whistling and dribbling suds. Two stood forlorn and
empty, their lids flung open, with crudely drawn signs that said
"Broke!" A long shelf partially covered in blue paper ran the
length of the wall, interrupted only by a locked door. Alone, at
the far end of the shelf, sat one empty laundry basket and an
open box of Tide. Above the shelf at the other end was a small
bulletin board decorated with yellowed business cards and torn
slips of paper: scrawled requests for rides, reward offers for lost
dogs, and phone numbers without names or explanations.

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On and on the machines hummed and wheezed, gurgled and
gushed, washed, rinsed, and spun.

2) Mabel's Lunch*

by Wright Morris
Mabel's Lunch stood along one wall of a wide room, once a pool
hall, with the empty cue racks along the back side. Beneath the
racks were wire-back chairs, one of them piled with magazines,
and between every third or fourth chair a brass spittoon. Near
the center of the room, revolving slowly as if the idle air was
water, a large propeller fan suspended from the pressed tin
ceiling. It made a humming sound, like a telephone pole, or an
idle, throbbing locomotive, and although the switch cord
vibrated it was cluttered with flies. At the back of the room, on
the lunch side, an oblong square was cut in the wall and a large
woman with a soft, round face peered through at us. After
wiping her hands, she placed her heavy arms, as if they tired
her, on the shelf.

* Adapted from a paragraph in The World in the Attic, by Wright


Morris (Scribner's, 1949).

3) Subway Station*

by Gilbert Highet
Standing in the subway station, I began to appreciate the
place--almost to enjoy it. First of all, I looked at the lighting: a
row of meager light bulbs, unscreened, yellow, and coated with
filth, stretched toward the black mouth of the tunnel, as though it
were a bolt hole in an abandoned coal mine. Then I lingered,
with zest, on the walls and ceilings: lavatory tiles which had
been white about fifty years ago, and were now encrusted with
soot, coated with the remains of a dirty liquid which might be
either atmospheric humidity mingled with smog or the result of a
perfunctory attempt to clean them with cold water; and, above
them, gloomy vaulting from which dingy paint was peeling off
like scabs from an old wound, sick black paint leaving a leprous
white undersurface. Beneath my feet, the floor a nauseating
dark brown with black stains upon it which might be stale oil or
dry chewing gum or some worse defilement: it looked like the
hallway of a condemned slum building. Then my eye traveled to
the tracks, where two lines of glittering steel--the only positively
clean objects in the whole place--ran out of darkness into
darkness above an unspeakable mass of congealed oil,
puddles of dubious liquid, and a mishmash of old cigarette
packets, mutilated and filthy newspapers, and the debris that
filtered down from the street above through a barred grating in
the roof.
* Adapted from a paragraph in Talents and Geniuses, by Gilbert
Highet (Oxford University Press, 1957).

4) The Kitchen*

by Alfred Kazin
The kitchen held our lives together. My mother worked in it all
day long, we ate in it almost all meals except the Passover
seder, I did my homework and first writing at the kitchen table,
and in winter I often had a bed made up for me on three kitchen
chairs near the stove. On the wall just over the table hung a
long horizontal mirror that sloped to a ship's prow at each end
and was lined in cherry wood. It took up the whole wall, and
drew every object in the kitchen to itself. The walls were a
fiercely stippled whitewash, so often rewhitened by my father in
slack seasons that the paint looked as if it had been squeezed
and cracked into the walls. A large electric bulb hung down the
center of the kitchen at the end of a chain that had been hooked
into the ceiling; the old gas ring and key still jutted out of the
wall like antlers. In the corner next to the toilet was the sink at
which we washed, and the square tub in which my mother did
our clothes. Above it, tacked to the shelf on which were
pleasantly ranged square, blue-bordered white sugar and spice
jars, hung calendars from the Public National Bank on Pitkin
Avenue and the Minsker Progressive Branch of the Workmen's
Circle; receipts for the payment of insurance premiums, and
household bills on a spindle; two little boxes engraved with
Hebrew letters. One of these was for the poor, the other to buy
back the Land of Israel. Each spring a bearded little man would
suddenly appear in our kitchen, salute us with a hurried Hebrew
blessing, empty the boxes (sometimes with a sidelong look of
disdain if they were not full), hurriedly bless us again for
remembering our less fortunate Jewish brothers and sisters,
and so take his departure until the next spring, after vainly trying
to persuade my mother to take still another box. We did
occasionally remember to drop coins in the boxes, but this was
usually only on the dreaded morning of "midterms" and final
examinations, because my mother thought it would bring me
luck.

* Adapted from a paragraph in A Walker in the City, by Alfred


Kazin (Harvest, 1969).
from Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986)
by Witold Rybczynski
Differences in posture, like differences in eating utensils (knife
and fork, chopsticks or fingers, for example), divide the world as
profoundly as political boundaries.

Regarding posture there are two camps: the sitters-up (the so-
called western world) and the squatters (everyone else).
Although there is no Iron Curtain separating the two sides,
neither feels comfortable in the position of the other. When I eat
with oriental friends I soon feel awkward sitting on the floor, my
back unsupported, my legs numb. But squatters don't like sitting
up either. An Indian household may have a dining room with
table and chairs, but when the family relaxes during the hot
afternoon, parents and children sit together on the floor. The
driver of a three-wheeled motor scooter in Delhi has to sit on a
seat, but instead of doing so in a western manner he squats
cross-legged, his feet on the bench instead of on the floor
(precariously to my eyes, comfortably to his). A Canadian
carpenter works standing up, at a bench. My Gujarati friend
Vikram, given the choice, prefers to work sitting down, on the
floor.

Watching Baseball, Playing Softball

by Lubby Juggins
We watch baseball: it's what we have always imagined life should be
like. We play softball. It's sloppy--the way life really is. I figured that
out a long time ago, on a soft summer evening when I was 13 years
old and dying of embarrassment in center field as our opponents
touched us up for 17 runs in the top half of the first inning. Now, beer
in fist, gaping at a blank TV screen as I wait for the first major league
game of the season, I'm trying to define just what it is I'm waiting for.
Baseball, we know, is precise, ceremonial. It's a world bounded by
foul lines, marked by fixed positions. The playing field is neatly
geometric, while the game itself is a linear equation of batters retired
and runs batted in. It begins with a song nobody can sing, and it ends
with hoarse whispers of "Maybe next year." The story of baseball is
like some ancient Greek myth: meet the enemy head on, tour the
bases, and eventually head back home, there to be greeted by friends
who suddenly recall how much they have missed you.

That's baseball.

Now softball is something different. For one thing we play wherever


we can, usually on golden fields of dog patties and shattered glass,
bounded by city streets and factory parking lots. We start by choosing
sides, arguing over who's to be stuck with Artie Magaffe, gimlet-eyed
and gimpy, and what we're going to use for home plate. We play until
we get too rowdy or the kids drag us home or we lose the ball
somewhere between a dumpster and a security fence. And whenever
some complacent fool reminds us, "It's only a game, fellas," we come
close to lopping his head off because, of course, we know it's a game.
Why else would we take it so seriously?
We watch baseball and imagine what it would be like to have the
power of Manny, Big Papi, and Johnny D. We play softball and
remember that really we're more like Larry, Curly, and Moe. In
baseball men are Giants--and Pirates and Tigers and Braves. In
softball, at best, we're lug wrenches and nuts in Warren's Electric &
Hardware. Or, more often, we're just beer-bellied slobs in Disney
World t-shirts and Hooters caps. And while we imagine grandstands
thundering with fans, all we've got is a runny-nosed wino chasing
unicorns in the outfield, and Sammy's poor wife, squatting on the
hood of their Honda, reading Harold Robbins and picking her teeth.

Yet now, as I sit here glaring at the TV, I remember what it is we're all
waiting for. That's why I get up, wheezing slightly, go to the closet and
root out a stiff old glove signed by Nomar Garciaparra. The laces are
missing and all the padding has been squeezed out through a hole in
the thumb. I follow my belly across a schoolyard diamond--jackets for
bases, a Frisbee for home plate--and I wander out to center field. In
front of me a gaggle of obsolete children in middle-age are shagging,
groaning, slapping their haunches, hollering "Way to go! Way to go!" I
crouch down with my hands on my knees and I wait. I wait for a
lopsided ball to come skidding or spinning or bounding my way. And,
as ever, I will spend the afternoon fumbling and bobbling and falling
flat on my can. I play softball.