Escape from Description Land: Less is More

Your fourth grade teacher, bless her heart, may have encouraged you to “be descriptive.” Now, as a writer, that idea could come back to haunt you.
Writing Tip for Today: New writers often over describe their settings and characters. Here are some ways to avoid stranding your reader in Description Land:

  • Instagram Characters. When we meet people, we make an instant assessment. Unless we have all the time in the world to observe, our brains pick out the most important cues to store as memory. If you as writer belabor a description–say starting at the head and working your way to the feet, it may strike the reader as odd and well, boring. When you describe a character, think of what would hit you in an instant: red suspenders, unkempt hair, a nose ring. Try crossing out half or more of your modifiers (adjectives and adverbs). Work to describe the character sparingly, but in a way that gives the impression you wish the reader to take away.
  • Weave Your Settings. As I’ve preached before, a setting quickly fades from the reader’s mind as dialogue and action take over. Instead of “chunking” all the description of a place in one spot (usually at the beginning of the scene), try sprinkling little reminders in with the action. EX: She pounded the mixing table, sending loose flour flying.
  • Manage Those Details. A writer’s task is one of particular noticing. That is, you are not going to give each and every detail equal weight. By calling attention to the important details, you direct the reader’s focus. Thus, if you want the reader to see a character as generous or forgiving, you might show that person dressed inconspicuously. By contrast, a flashy dresser pushes the impression to one of self-centeredness, unless you do other things to offset it. In managing your reader, it really is true that less is more. Avoid over describing so that your story doesn’t get lost in the details.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Escape from Description Land: Less is More

  1. Your “Less is more” advice was quite helpful. And “sometimes you have to kill your little darlings (descriptors) was painful but necessary. Thank you

  2. Karen,
    Painful rewriting is standard. 🙂 As you hone your craft, you will learn to be more detached. In my case, I always wonder why I was so invested in what I cut–the end result is always so much better.
    Keep Writing,

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