The descriptive and narrative essay styles
The essay is a flexible form of writing, and although the most common essays assigned in the academy are argumentative in nature, you might also be asked to write a narrative or descriptive essay. These two kinds of essay differ from argumentative essays chiefly in approach and style, and the two are similar in that both draw more explicitly on the resources of creative writers, and both are often less formal than argumentative essays. Finally, narrative and descriptive essays rely on emotional appeal more heavily than argumentative essays. You might use these techniques in your personal statement when applying for college or graduate school.
This article offers a brief description of each of the two styles and provides a short list of tips to keep in mind for writing such essays.
Remember that even though these are more creative forms of essay, they share those features that define the essay form: They are written and structured deliberately and in the service of communicating a certain interpretation of something, usually trying to shift the way a reader thinks about that thing.
Put another way, narrative and descriptive essays are as rigorously conceived as argumentative essays, and the purpose of writing one is to make a certain point about something. As in more formal essays, the communication of this point should be the purpose that the essay serves, which will normally be made clear near the beginning of the paper.
The descriptive essay requires the writer to convey the texture of an experience to a reader. In other words, in a descriptive essay your description of your subject (an emotion, a scene, a conversation, etc.) should get your reader as close as possible to experiencing that subject (to feeling that emotion, watching that scene, overhearing that conversation, etc.).
Tips for writing descriptive essays
- Find striking and fitting words. In all writing, from the driest legal document to the most nuanced poem, good authors sweat over every word. This is especially true of the descriptive essayist. For every word, ask whether it helps convey the experience you want to describe. Remember, because you’re after an experience, sensual language will often be more effective than cerebral language; appeal to the senses, not only the intellect.
- Pace the writing carefully. The length of your sentences affects the mood of your writing, so be aware of your sentence construction tendencies. A string of short sentences, for example, can emphasize the fragmentary nature of an experience, while long sentences with strategically placed conjunctions and transitions can carry a sense of exhaustion. It’s important to consider not only the content of your writing, but the form of its expression as well. Again, while this is true in all writing, it’s especially true in a descriptive essay.
- Keep notes on your experience. If the idea is to convey the sense of a certain experience, having as much information as possible about that experience will be a helpful aid for you as you write. Whether you are imagining your experience or actually having it, a period of note-taking will be useful to amass the descriptive resources from which you will draw when you begin to write.
Narrative essays, as the name suggests, usually plot out a course of events. In other words, they usually tell a story of some variety, be that the story of a fictional character’s teenage years or the story of the author’s experience of a half-hour lecture. One of the most significant ways to distinguish these from more common academic essays is to notice that a narrative essay always has a character experiencing a series of events, whereas an academic essay is primarily analysis of concepts or data.
On the other hand, the narrative essay’s emphasis on a series of events distinguishes it from the descriptive essay, which focuses rather on the experience of a single event, or even a single moment. A narrative essay is a bit like a movie, while a descriptive essay is like a photo. And as the principles of cinematography are similar to the principles of photography, so principles of narrative essays are similar to those of descriptive essays. Keep all of the tips about descriptive essays in mind for your narrative essays.
Tips for writing narrative essays
- Plan and structure the narrative carefully. All of the narrative techniques of great fiction are open to you when you write a narrative essay, including use of flashbacks, foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and a host of others. Draw on the resources of good fiction, but take care not to overdo it—remember, the narrative essay’s purpose is not to showcase your writing style, but to convincingly communicate your idea about something.
- Use the character of your narrator. Even if you cast yourself as the narrator of the essay, you will inevitably have to select among the character traits that you will foreground as a narrator. A strong narrative essay will have a definite sense of the narrator’s identity, and this identity will contribute to the story and its main point. With an unreliable or unlikeable narrator, for example, you are able to present ideas in her voice while at the same time implicitly questioning those ideas. On the other hand, you are able to use a trustworthy narrator, for example, to make a point about how trustworthy people fare in the world.
The challenge of the descriptive or narrative essay is in harnessing the resources of creative writers in order to make a point, as more common varieties of essays in the academy do.