Writing to Describe


Of the three styles of writing, ‘writing to describe’ is by far the easiest to gain good marks in. It is therefore strongly recommended that you answer the writing to describe question, this means even if the question in the exam is awful it’ll still probably be easier than the writing to inform or explain.

Here’s a checklist of key points you should bare in mind for the exam:

1. The first thing you should notice is that this is “writing to describe” and by this it means you should describe an event, character or scene; what you shouldn’t do is write a story. This is a very common mistake but one that could lose you marks if you don’t include lots of descriptive techniques.

2. When writing to describe it is easiest to describe a real place or a person who you actually know because, although writing about a small mountain town in the Himalayas may sound interesting it can be very difficult to make your description realistic.

3. Another very important thing to do is to maintain control over your tenses. One of the easiest ways to do this is to only write using the past tense. So describe what you saw not what you can see.

An actual Student Response

Let’s first start with an example of an actual student response to an exam question to give you an idea of what is needed. All of the points will be discussed in more detail later.

1. Describe a nightmare world or somewhere you find frightening (27 marks)

I suppose when many describe a nightmare world they recall a world of goblins and monsters that are so devoid of any sense of reality that the mere thought of such creatures almost seems funny. (Original opening) They remove the events of their nightmare world from any sense of reality to the extent that it almost suggests our world is a place of happiness. They magnify our suffering and confine the events and actions to mere gothic literature. But not I. (Short sentence for effect) I went in search of the nightmare world that was developed, that had meaning and purpose. A world where suffering was an everyday part of everyone’s life; where happiness existed only to contrast the bad. (Sophisticated punctuation) Somewhat unsurprisingly it seems my search didn’t last long…

I peered through the looking glass to find the very thing I had been looking for. Salvation. Freedom. Justice. How can these words exist when compared to this? I gazed as the Earth materialised before me. I mixture of blues and the greens swirled through a sea of despair and agony; the World bleeds. This is my home. (Short sentence for effect)

Pain. Suffering. Death. Only man could create such destruction. The mechanisation of murder. (Alliteration) World War II within the short space of six years millions died through a wave of evil, greed and power.

The commander at Auschwitz would return to his family each and everyday, tired from a hard days work. All the time feeling sorry for himself. Feeling sorry that he had to burn the bodies of the sub-humans. Feeling sorry that he was stuck doing the work few others wanted. Feeling sorry (Repetition) that he wasn’t out killing the British like a real man. Each minute gouging at his nostrils in an attempt to remove the smell of burning flesh.

WWII an echo of the past; an echo of the Great War. (Effective Punctuation) The war to end all wars. People read and heard the stories of the men who fought during the war. The stories of death, pain and destruction and yet history repeated itself. They knew all too well of the suffering it caused. And yet they allowed it to continue. Why does man have to define its existence through suffering? Or at least man is forced to…

WWI. The soldiers were beaten, battered and bruised (Alliteration) before being thrown over the top, before having their bodies annihilated by the spray of machine guns. And all the while the Generals miles behind the lines of fighting watched, laughed as their pawns were destroyed. The soldiers’ lives meant nothing to them. And those who were not thrown over the top were forced to wait and watch as their comrades died; always aware that in the coming future, that is if the gas didn’t get them first. WMD. These three letters spelled the end for many soldiers’ lives. Gas the first of many Weapons of Mass Destruction, designed to kill without mercy. To kill without discrimination. Whether it was a man, woman or child, an elderly gentleman or women it would destroy them. They could only pray for death as the gas bonded to their eyes and slowly burned their mouths. They would choke drowning under a sea of green, dark, haunting smoke. Many hoping without hope that their feeble gas mask might save them…

War is the one and only true nightmare world. (Reference back to the original essay title)



This piece of writing was awarded an A*. It has a very original take on the task and as you can see it also makes effective use of different styles of sentences, uses sophisticated punctuation, lots of imagery and repetition. It also has a high level of technical accuracy with few spelling or punctuation errors.

Let’s look at the different techniques used in this piece of writing…



In order to make your writing feel crafted it is important you plan, this helps to give your writing direction. Planning is described in more detail in the ‘General Writing Techniques’ section.

The two most important parts of the piece of writing is the introduction and the conclusion. The introduction can be very representative of the piece of writing overall and the conclusion is what will remain in the examiners mind when they give you that mark out of 27.

The Introduction

There are a number of ways you can attract the attention of the reader, you could use speech, short sentences, complex punctuation or even open with a vivid metaphor. However, as the above piece of writing demonstrates you don’t always have to use these techniques, just try to make it original.
Whilst your opening is important, you cannot afford to forget about the main body of the text! You’ve got to try to make your writing interesting, an easy way to do this is to begin with a more generalised comment about the person, place or thing you wish to describe and then focus on a particular action or characteristic as you develop the description. In the above piece of writing the candidate has a generalised comment about nightmares and then focuses on what he believes to be a true nightmare.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is used to finish off the piece of writing, as you can see in the above piece of writing the candidate has chose to use the conclusion to refer back to the question. However the conclusion can be used for a number of other things. You could use both the introduction and conclusion together to signal the passage of time. So for example if you are describing a place in the introduction you could talk about the beauty of the sunrise and in the conclusion contrast this with a description of the sunset. This also helps to suggest you have crafted your writing (you’ve demonstrated that you knew where the writing was going, which can only be done effectively by planning), in turn giving you greater marks in the exam.

Imagery and the Senses

When describing an event one thing you must do is to 'show' the reader rather than tell them. This means you must make full use of your senses; you must describe what you saw, felt, tasted, heard and smelt.

Don’t just say “Mr Thomson wasn’t very nice”
Show us he isn’t very nice through his actions and describe him using you full senses.

The mark scheme states that you must use “effective and delightful vocabulary choices”. By this it means that you should use more complex vocabulary throughout your piece of writing, for example don’t use a simple verb and then include an adverb such as:
“she ran home quickly”
just use a precise piece of vocabulary instead:
“she galloped home”
The second is much more effective and will gain you more marks in the exam!

Metaphors and Similes

Both of these are very important to add depth to your piece of writing. A metaphor is used to describe something as though it is something else, whilst a simile is to describe something like something else.

In the above example the candidate has made effective use of imagery, but notice that they haven’t tried to use a metaphor in every sentence. Only use imagery if it’s appropriate, don’t just use one for the sake of it! Here’s some examples of the imagery used:

1. And all the while the Generals miles behind the lines of fighting watched, laughed as their pawns were destroyed.
2. They would choke drowning under a sea of green, dark, haunting smoke.

Other techniques

There are numerous techniques you can use when writing to describe, the main ones are repetition and alliteration. Both help to give you piece of writing the feeling that it has been crafted and in turn help to maximise you score in the exam. Again there are several examples of these techniques being used by the candidate.


Test Yourself Question

Try this before having a look at the next example:

1. Describing a place you have strong feelings about. (27 marks)

Actual Student Response

Here’s another example demonstrating the techniques that have been described above.

1. Describing a place you have strong feelings about. (27 marks)

Have you every loved something so much it pains you to see it suffer? The place where I live is a town filled with memories of joy, happiness and cruelty. Springton was an old town, but it was a tired old town. I suppose if you are to understand my story we will have to start at the beginning. Springton was a town of red brick, blue collared slobs and for a sort time overpaid corporate fat-cats. The contrast was immediate, in body and soul. The heart of the town beated faintly, its influence choked by fat so intensified at the town centre that what energy remained rippled outwards towards the town boarders appeared as a mere shadow of its former self.

The inner city of the town contained several large streets all very like one another. Each street branched out into many smaller streets still more alike one another. The outskirts of town were inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the same past, present and future. Or so they thought.

The outskirts, however were a different story…Removed from all that made the town centre disgusting these suburbs flourished, feeding off a layer of poverty. Its inhabitants were all doing well, and all emulously hoping to do better still. This district was surrounded by walls that no man could pass. It became the glass ceiling. Children, men and women alike would try to breakdown these barriers but this was a feat no one ever achieved.

This was Springton in the 1900’s. But it was not always like this. The town was for a time small, peaceful and quiet; until its somewhat unfounded expansion. The town’s growth like ivy implied no aptness or affection to the object from which it grew. And what object is this I hear? Coal. Black gold they called it. But the towns inhabitants didn’t.

Springton like many towns in the area was dragged along by political brutes. They promised great wealth and power. However, none came. Springton tapped into its natural wealth in an attempt to grow and industrialise. An effect became a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form. The towns growth could be likened to a man who drinks because he feels he is a failure, and then fails all the more completely because he drinks. The blackened faces of workers dug deep into the caverns of the Earth extracting its soul. Somewhat unsurprisingly the effect was to be all the more disastrous.

A city requires foundations to grow, foundation built over time. For many cities this is formed as the product of years of sweat and labour. Seduced by the prospect of wealth Springton, however opted for the quick fix. It exploited the coal mines. And all was good. Until the same people who encouraged the opening of the mines, the same people who fed like pigs on the misery of others, the same people who toyed with the lives of millions, closed down the mines. Why? In search of a new area, an area free from the pains and strains of industry. An area that would work for little and give everything. I suppose you wonder why I speak so poorly of the town I so dearly love. The very reason I love it is why I must distaste its exploitation. And thus the final chapter on this town closes but it will not be the last…


Again this is another piece that was awarded an A*. As you can see this is an original take on quite a dull question. It starts with an original opening and follows this through with imagery, to create a vivid description. It also has a high level of technical accuracy with complex punctuation such as semi-colons (explained in the general writing techniques section) and few spelling mistakes.

Test Yourself Questions

2. Places are often different at night than they are during the day. Describe a place at night and day paying particular attention to the similarities and differences.
(27 marks)