Home > The Editor's Corner > Editor’s Corner: Perfecting the Art of Description in Writing

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When it comes to writing, one of the most important tasks a writer has is to give just enough information, then allow the imagination of the reader to fill in the rest. Beginning writers, however, often overdo it, creating descriptions that are far too verbose and convoluted. The question is, how much is too much? Unfortunately, there are as many answers as there are writers.

Mark Twain, for example, advised, “Don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. … They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart” (letter to D. W. Bowser, 1880).

J. R. R. Tolkien, however, is known for his lengthy, adjective-laden descriptions:

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

So what is a beginning writer to do? The best place to start is to ask yourself whether the details you’ve included are necessary. Consider the following example:

The man walked down the street.

It is a complete sentence with a noun, a verb, and even a prepositional phrase. It leaves the reader with some questions, however:

  • Why did the man walk?
  • Is he old or young?
  • Where is he walking?
  • Is he alone, or is someone with him?

To answer those questions, let’s rewrite the example:

The kind old man with fading hair, shining eyes, a moth-eaten sweater, and wrinkled brown pants that had seen better days walked alone down the crowded street toward the bank in order to finally retrieve the large, heavy, and bulky safety deposit box his great-aunt Helen had left him so many years before when she’d died of pneumonia in some out-of-the-way, godforsaken hospital they called a sanatorium.

Can you spot the problems? First, there is so much description that it becomes impossible to discern what’s important and what isn’t. Second, nothing is left to the imagination, which breaks our cardinal rule of giving just enough information to allow the imagination of the reader to fill in the rest.

To provide the reader with a solid idea of the character while still retaining some of the mystery, we must remove anything that isn’t necessary to the reader’s understanding of either the character or the plot.

  • “Kind” can be removed because it can be shown through the man’s actions with others.
  • The specifics of his attire can be removed, which will allow the reader to imagine what clothing “that had seen better days” might look like.
  • “Oversized” can take the place of the three adjectives large, heavy, and bulky.
  • “Helen” can be removed to prevent the confusion of too many character names.
  • The entire description of the sanatorium can be removed because it isn’t relevant to the main plot, which is about the man—not his great-aunt.

After the edits, we are left with the following:

The old man with fading hair, shining eyes, and clothes that had seen better days walked alone down the crowded street toward the bank. He was finally going to retrieve the oversized safety deposit box his great-aunt had left him so many years before.

By making the cuts and keeping what matters, we are left with a clear, concise, and interesting portrait of a character. We are also compelled to continue reading to learn why his great-aunt left him the box, what’s inside, and what he’s going to do with it once he has it.

Because writing is an art, rather than a science, there is more than one way to edit descriptions that are too long-winded. The subtleties of an author’s personal writing style will begin to show with both time and practice. For example, as the writer progresses, the above example might morph into this:

With fading hair and shining eyes, the old man walked alone. Down the crowded street, he moved in clothes that had seen better days, on his way to finally retrieve the oversized safety deposit box. So many years before, his great-aunt had left him that box …

And that, too, is just fine, because it still says what it needs to say while avoiding purple prose—“text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”(1)

In the end, the way to deal with too much descriptive prose is simple: Pare it down to its barest form (e.g., “the man walked down the street”), then ask yourself what else your readers need to know. If it isn’t important to the characters or plot, leave it out.

Perhaps Ursula Le Guin put it best in Steering the Craft when she wrote, “Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.”