The author S.A. Joo's Writing & Editing Advice & Tips

A professional Editor and YA Writer, represented by Black Hawk Literary Agency.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing Descriptions in Creative Writing

It’s a common knowledge that description is an integral part of creative writing. It not only give the readers immediate sense of the world, it also must carry the plot forward at the same time. Just as dialogues, descriptions should be succinct, vivid, and easy to understand. As writers, you want to give the realistic world and relatable characters. After all, there’s nothing like a flat description that makes the readers’ eyes glaze over.
However, many writers fall into the pit of information dumping or over-describing when the details should be woven into the narrative. There are two distinct mistakes when it comes to writing description. Some tells us every little information about the setting or the characters. Even the things the readers don’t actually need to know or want to know. And some give too little description. This is where the writer skim through the explanation lacking in world building. 
Examples: I’ve read books where I had to read ten pages before I finally got to “see” the character. Until then, all I knew was the name and the gender. If this is your protagonist (MC), you need to give us a clear picture of him/her. The other bad example is over doing it. I’ve read books where the writers describe the character walking into a room in three paragraphs, telling every movement. And it wasn’t even necessary to the plot, meaning it didn’t add anything to the story or the character development. 
So how does one write perfect description? You need to find a balance. You need to create a vivid image using five senses. You have to articulate in a succinct manner. Writers, read your MS over again. Can some words be deleted without changing the scenery or the plot? Are there too much information that slows down the pacing? Are there too little world building? All writers need to learn to be objective and view their work with critical eyes. Now, I appreciate how difficult that can be, but that’s a writer’s job. If it were easy, everyone would be published authors. Good luck in your writing and revising process. Thanks for visiting my blog~
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  1. Such great advice. This is hard to do, but out of all of the revising pieces, I think this one gets you the most for your effort! Thanks for posting. Stay groovy!

  2. I'd read similar posts like this. The way I tried to handle it was to introduce the character slowly over a few pages and then hand detail by detail in the hopes that it wasn't overwhelming.

  3. I try to incorporate descriptions by comparing what the MC sees to himself. Like, the MC mentions the sister's hair color, which is blonde like mom's whereas she has dirty blonde like dad.

    So they're not just giving details about themselves, they're painting a broader picture too.

  4. Great post. I was a culprit of leaving the mc's physical appearance largely up to the reader's imagination.
    Sirra is doing a fantastic job of editing my ms and showing me so many things like this. My understanding of writing has completely transformed and matured because of her editing and advice.
    Now I'm revising, and I'm weaving in vital descriptions in a succinct way. ;)

  5. This is great advice, you totally need a balance. Early on with my writing, when I thought I was ready to be a "real" writer, I was really good at was "purple prose." Boy, could I ever describe minute details--that nobody cared about.

    I think one of the authors who can get away with mountains of loopy description is Margaret Atwood. But then again, to your point, I've tossed one of her books aside when I felt like the story wasn't moving forward.

    One thing to add regarding description is using appropriate words. If I read a description that is out of context for the setting, story, or the character then it can feel like it doesn't fit, or worse, illicit the wrong visual. Like using the words "decrepit" or "decaying" to describe a sensual love scene. Word choice should be intentional.

  6. Robert Jordan was guilty of overdescribing, especially in his later books. You'd skip pages of stuff that didn't really matter (or if it did, you'll never know now!) because you were bored and wanting to get to the good bits! Of course, that problem was solved when Brandon Sanderson took over.

  7. Another helpful reminder for novices and more established writers alike. Write on, Su! :-)