Saturday, May 30, 2009


Today, we are talking about descriptions. This was a recent discussion on Absolute Write and it got me thinking. When you are in school, they teach you to over-describe and put adverbs and adjectives everywhere. It's not good practice for fiction anymore. You can't get away with it. So, put it out of your head, for now. No adverbs. They are cheap and easy. I don't write cheap and easy, well, at least I try not to.

Sometimes, it's easy to get into lengthy descriptions about surroundings. But let me just say, unless your readers are from Mars, then they know what an oak tree is. They know what most kitchens and bathrooms look like. So, what about description?

Well, for the most part, it needs to be interweaved with the story, not thrown down in long chunks of prose. Build your world slowly, in sips. It's more natural.

Your characters don't notice their surroundings constantly, so why should the readers? Most human beings take their surroundings for granted, especially the familiar ones. By all means, if this is the first time your character has ever seen a certain object/place/person, describe a little. But only a little. Don't over-do. Since it was the subject of the conversation on AW, let's use the kitchen as an example.

I don't describe the kitchen or anything else unless I have to. I describe the things that are important. I mean really, how many ways can a kitchen be? If you let your readers get to know your character well enough, they know what color the kitchen is. Or a rough estimate. World-building isn't descriptions. It's making your character, and through them your readers, interact with it. They know it's there. It's safe to assume that if they are getting coffee, that they have a coffeemaker (or instant coffee). We don't need to know anything more than the character's actions. If they are painting a room, fine. Mention the color. Have the characters talk about it. Why are they painting? Why did they pick this color? But always ask yourself if it's important. If it's not, then there's no point in it being there. If they are just painting the room to be painting it, do they discuss something that helps with the plot? That's always an option. Does something happen while they work? It's not always about painting a picture. In fact, it's not painting a picture at all.

For me, description is only a little bit of information to allow the reader to assume the things you (the writer) want them to. That's all it needs to be. You needn't add into the story that the cocker spaniel has brown eyes. All cocker spaniels have brown eyes. It's unnecessary. We writers need to stop assuming everyone else on the planet isn't as smart as we are. In truth, they're are probably quite a few that are smarter.

My point is, describe what needs a description. Loading down your manuscript with pointless words is only going to make your job harder when it's editing time. Editing, however, is for a different post.

That's it for now guys.

Peace & Love


  1. When I first started writing I was guilty of over describing things, especially since I was reading a lot of Lovecraft, Poe, etc. Painting a picture with words was an understatement. I was slathering it on so thick the damn canvas was dripping.

    Nowadays I'm taking a more spartan Stephen King-esque approach to my writing. Surprisingly enough, the feedback I tend to get is on how descriptive I am. It seems the one or two details I throw in are enough to spark the reader's imagination, letting the rest unfold in their mind's eye while I continue telling the tale.

    I have to admit, it was a bitch getting to that point.

  2. I tend to write mote cleanly on my first drafts and add tid bits here and there. It's easier for me to see where it needs a little extra. I get down my actions/reactions and dialog first. After that, I start threading in descriptions, stream of consciousness etc. It's been going pretty well this way. My writing seems richer now that I started doing it, and much better too.