I received an email a few weeks back looking for clarification on desciptive essays. Specifically, what different approaches can students take when writing a descriptive essay?
When it came up as an option on Leaving Cert paper 1 recently, the marking scheme stated that students could adopt a “narrative or discursive approach“. Confusion often arises here because when we think “narrative” we think story – plot, characters, setting. And when we think “discursive” we think argument, opinion…
I’ve tried to tease out the ways personal essays, descriptive essays and short stories are related yet distinct in the past, with some limited success. Truth is, the ties that bind them are stronger than any scissors which seeks to cut them apart but with so many marks going for “clarity of purpose” [this includes responding to the topic as well as writing within the specified genre] it’s not surprising that both teachers and students seek clarity on what exactly defines each genre.
Here’s a graphic I created for this very purpose, which first appeared in the 2015 Irish Independent Written Word Supplement. You’ll notice that description forms the trunk, or backbone, and feeds into all three.
Looking through a different lens this time, becuase of the email I received, I would say that a narrative descriptive essay has a lot in common with the short story and a discursive descriptive essay has more in common with the personal essay.
If a student or a teacher wanted a definition, I’d say:
Descriptive essay with narrative approach = descriptive in style, with a story to tell.
Descriptive essay with discursive approach = descriptive in style, with an issue to discuss.
What does this look like in practice?
Here are a few descriptive essays taking a narrative approach (I wrote the first one; junior cycle students wrote the other two):
However, a descriptive essay can also take a discursive approach, where the language is descriptive but an issue is also being discussed and the thoughts, opinions, knowledge and understanding of the writer come into play.
Have a look at this example which is extremely descriptive (it uses metaphor throughout) but which is also discussing an issue – bullying: http://leavingcertenglish.net/2014/03/abcs-of-bullying/
Why combine them?
Why not just have descriptive essays be descriptive and discursive essays be discursive?
Well, when an issue is being discussed it’s discursive [all paper two essays are discursive] but a writer can achieve wonderful aesthetic effects, and really engage the reader, if they combine discussion and description.
For me, it helps to remind myself that the boundaries between genres are fluid, and as long as a student embraces some elements of description if asked to write a descriptive essay, they won’t be penalised for the approach they take.
You might also want to take a look at this essay I wrote: http://leavingcertenglish.net/2011/05/ict-in-education-conference/
It’s a perfect example of the fluidity of genres.
It begins with a poem [hence, aesthetic use of language]
It goes on to discuss an event and an issue – use of ICT in education [hence, discursive]
It takes a descriptive approach throughout [using lists and metaphors and moment by moment description]
It ends by linking to a personal story – the death of my friend [hence, a personal essay with a narrative thread holding it together].
I just thought I’d post my reply to this query, as coming up with an answer really got me thinking in depth about how fluid the boundaries between genres can sometimes be… that’s not a bad thing, but it does make assessing with genre as one of the criteria that bit trickier. To my mind, as long as it’s clear that the student is controlling their use of genre conventions, rather than being oblivious to genre, then they should be ok. On the other hand, if a student comes across as having no awareness of genre, audience and register, that’s where problems arise…
It is really easy to confuse the narrative and the descriptive essay, because they are so often intertwined. Think of the last novel or short story you read. There was a plot – that was the narrative. Then, there were passages that provided descriptions of people, places, things, or events that appealed to our senses and gave us good “pictures” in our minds. Those passages were descriptive but did not add specific plot details.
When you are given assignments that involve writing personal narrative essays or writing descriptive essays, the focus must be on the operative word – narrative or descriptive, and the purpose of each of these terms.
Purpose Determines Focus
Each of these types of essays has a purpose. The purpose of a descriptive essay, for example, is to provide a vivid “picture” of a place, a person, a thing or an idea (these are nouns, get it?). The writer is required to paint this picture through the use of figurative language and appeals to as many senses as possible. Thus, you might be asked to write a descriptive essay of bustling market in a village. You will focus on the sights, the sounds, and the smells of that market place.
On the other hand, if the essay is a narrative, and you are in that same bustling market in a village, you will be focusing on your experiences, and the events that occurred as you experienced that market. You would speak to your interactions with vendors, things you bought, etc.
The Lines Can Get blurred
Sometimes you cannot think in terms of the narrative vs. descriptive essay, for they often mesh. If you are writing a personal essay, for example, you may very well need to describe other people and events that make your story “real.” Thus, you engage in descriptive writing. If, as well, you are writing a descriptive essay and it involves you (e.g., describing a favorite vacation spot), you cannot help but place yourself in a narrative writing mode. So, stop thinking always of descriptive vs. narrative essay and start thinking about the primary focus of the essay itself. Yes, the lines will blur, but the focus must be either narrative or descriptive dependent upon the assignment given.
Write Your Essay According to the Assigned Type
When children write their first narrative essay, they are purely telling a story. There will be almost no description in that essay whatsoever. This is to be expected, and the narratives are pretty boring, for the most part. As students progress through school, they may be given great narrative essay prompts that will allow them to write about things from personal perspectives but, as well, begin to add descriptive passages that make their narratives “come alive.” For example, a narrative essay prompt may be given to recall an incident in which one had true fear. A student who chooses being caught in a snow storm would not be able to write a compelling narrative without vivid descriptions of that storm. On the other hand, if a descriptive essay were the assignment, then the student would of course spend more time describing the snowstorm but could not leave out being in it! The point is this: personal narratives will require descriptive features in order to be interesting and/or entertaining; descriptive essays may need to involve personal involvement as well. So long as you write your essay and keep the focus on its type, you can add elements from the other in order to make your essay more appealing to the reader. If you are describing a funeral or a wedding that involves people close to you, how could you not address your feelings? Your essay would lack any personalization and some very necessary elements!
It is Never a Bad Idea to Seek Assistance
Some students are great essay writers as long as they are able to focus on certain types – expository, explanatory, definition, compare and contrast – because they have a left-brain dominance. When it comes to personal narratives and descriptive essays, however, they struggle, for these types involves more “right-brain” activity – the need to be creative and somewhat unique in presentation. If this sounds like you, don’t stress about it. Everyone has specific skill sets and talents as well as areas of challenge. If you are not “into” writing personal narratives or descriptions, let GrabMyEssay take over for you. We have lots of creative writers who engage their “right brains” every day!
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