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Academic writing styles: Descriptive academic writing

Academic writing is far from a one-size-fits-all genre. Applicable to the broad variety of academic disciplines and their unique approaches to conducting and documenting research efforts in the field, one might find it challenging to identify clearly what constitutes academic writing.

In our latest series of #AcWriChat TweetChat events on Twitter, we have begun exploring four commonly accepted academic writing styles: descriptive, analytical, persuasive, and critical. This article focuses on the discussion about the first of those four styles – descriptive academic writing.

Descriptive academic writing – definition, purpose, and limitations

We began with questions focused on defining the descriptive academic writing style and understanding its purpose and limitations when writing academic papers.

According to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, a descriptive essay “encourages the student’s ability to create a written account of a particular experience”. The University of Sydney identifies the style as useful when “asked to describe or outline the way things are (for example, the features of a particular theory) or the way things happened (for example, a series of historical events)”. Chat participant, Eric Schmieder, added that descriptive writing is “focused on conveying background knowledge or understanding…for orienting the reader to the argument being made in the paper.”

Butte College notes “description embedded in an argument paper, for example, may be intended to make a position more persuasive”. While true, the aforementioned University of Sydney resource reminds us that “descriptive writing simply lists or catalogues information. It does not establish relationships between the pieces of information and does not present a position to be argued”.

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill places this limitation in perspective stating, “It is important, though, to recognize when you must go beyond describing, explaining, and restating texts and offer a more complex analysis.” An effective mix of descriptive writing within a paper, however, provides critical information to support the additional analysis and arguments presented.

Descriptive academic writing – the answers to questions throughout the manuscript

By recognizing that descriptive academic writing in insufficient for argumentative articles and papers, we continued the chat discussion by focusing on where descriptive writing is used in more complex essays. To help identify those areas where descriptive writing may be effective, we sought to identify the types of questions answered through descriptive writing and how the answers to those questions support other elements of the manuscript.

Schmieder argued that “descriptive writing could be used in all sections of an article or thesis: Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results, and Conclusion”. The USC Libraries Research Guide on The Methodology supports the use of descriptive writing in that section of a paper stating, “The methods section describes actions to be taken to investigate a research problem and the rationale for the application of specific procedures or techniques used”.

According to the University of Reading LibGuides resource on academic writing, “Descriptive writing focuses on answering the ‘what?’ ‘when’ and ‘who’ type questions.” Schmieder clarified that stating, “Descriptive writing answers fact-based questions. Dates, actions, procedures, established purposes, etc. It does not address open-ended, opinion-based questions.” Put simply, the James C. Kirkpatrick Library at the University of Central Missouri states, “As the name suggests, the descriptive question describes conditions that are happening or characteristics that exist.”

As shown by the Australian College of Applied Psychology’s Example of descriptive and critical writing, descriptive writing is often found side-by-side with critical arguments. The Walden University Writing Center shares another use of descriptive writing to support the writing process – reverse outlining. According to their guide on outlining, “Making an outline of each paragraph and its topic sentence after you have written your paper can be an effective way of identifying a paper’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Bring the world within your text to your reader

The power of descriptive academic writing is summarized by Indiana University of Pennsylvania as follows, “Descriptive writing has a unique power and appeal, as it evokes sights, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes. Using description in your writing brings the world within your text to your reader.”

To accomplish this, we must “show” the reader our research, not simply tell them about it. As noted in the Chandler-Gilbert Community College resource titled Descriptive and Sensory Detail in Narrative Writing, “Writing that lacks description is in danger of being vague or overly general.” For practical advice on showing vs. telling through descriptive writing, check out this resource from Grand Valley State university.

The next article in this series will focus on our second academic writing style, analytical academic writing.