All academic writing, across all disciplines, will include some element of description. This is true whether you are writing an essay, a report, a dissertation, a critique, a literature review – there will be things that need to be described. You may, for example, need to give an account of –
Findings from current research on a topic
A particular problem or issue (eg medical, environmental, psychological)
A particular incident (eg historical event, natural disaster, emergency)
A case study or profile of a particular person or group (eg for social work, nursing or education)
Sometimes you will be describing one-off events or occurrences. Other times it will be more a case of describing processes, over a period of time, eg trends, changes and developments, perhaps setting out a sequence of events, including cause and effect. You may, in doing this, need to interpret and describe graphical or statistical information. You will probably also need to include definitions at the outset, as part of this process of setting out the terms of your assignment. In all of these cases clarity is paramount, so that the reader receives the information in exactly the way you intended it.
In all of these cases, accurate and clear description is important in its own right. It shows that you understand and are familiar with the subject matter you are dealing with, and that you can support your case with referenced examples and instances.
However, it is also a vital preliminary or platform to enable you to move from the what to the why– in other words to allow you to demonstrate the “higher order” thinking and writing skills of evaluation and critical analysis which will always be required at this level, and which tutors will be looking for.
For example, if you were writing an essay about the American Civil War, or the establishment of the NHS in this country, you would need to explain -
What exactly it was (dates, locations, key events and documents, major figures}
Why it happened (causes, consequences, underlying issues, theoretical perspectives,)
The first is more to do with facts (objective, verifiable), the second more to do with opinion (subjective, dependent on interpretation} – and this is where the evaluation and critical analysis come in. Developing your own argument in response to a question/title includes setting out key facts, dates, events and processes, but it also entails interpretation and discussion of their significance, with reference to published research and current theoretical perspectives on the subject.
Descriptive writing involves summarising and paraphrasing material from your own reading. Again, you will need to show –
That you have read a reasonably wide range of up to date and relevant academic writing on the subject.
That you are able to express the key ideas and theories in your own words – that you are able to accurately and fluently sum up and give a sense of the importance of x, y or z.
Always try to use your own phrasing/form of words rather than the author’s. Summarising in your own words is actually a very good test of your understanding of the material. Merely re-using the author’s words, phrases and sentences doesn’t demonstrate understanding – just the ability to copy or cut and paste. Not only that, if the way that you have expressed something is too close to the wording of the original, you are leaving yourself open to the charge of plagiarism - which is to be avoided at all costs.
Ask yourself -
Are my descriptions sufficiently clear, detailed and unambiguous to be easily followed? Clear writing = clear thinking
Have I provided the necessary references for any definitions and sources I have included, so that they can be easily located?
Is the descriptive language that I have used, as far as possible, my own?
Have I perhaps been too descriptive? Both descriptive and analytical writing have their place, no question, and both are essential to the development of a sound and cogent argument. However, one of the most commonly heard tutor criticisms is “too much description and not enough evaluation and critical analysis”. Try to keep this in mind as you write.
These two webpages feature very useful explanations of the essential differences between descriptive and critical/analytical writing - the first in the form of a handy tabular summary, the second explained in more detail.
Critical thinking and reflection
Critical writing: descriptive vs critical
The two books below both contain chapters on the skills and language of paraphrasing and summarising, with practice exercises.
Bailey, S, Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students, 3rd. edn (2011), London, Routledge (pp. 119-125)
Harrison, M, Jakeman, P and Paterson,K, Improve Your Grammar, (2012), Basingstoke, Palgrave (pp.32-35)
1:1 bookable appointments can be made with your Academic Skills Advisers for your subject area.
Students from Ipswich can book two appointments per week (if you are a student from the Learning Network, please contact your library) -
Appointments are scheduled in 30 minute slots.