When to Stop Describing

Description is one of the most difficult parts of writing. We’ve all read books in which the author over-describes someone or something–pairing every noun with an adjective and every verb with an adverb. The effect of over-description is often the exact opposite of what the writer intends; too much description slows down the reader and makes the description feel artificial. Instead of recreating the world through writing, an overly descriptive author manages to highlight the artifice of the work. The written piece feel less realistic and more like just a collection of words on a page.

What follows is an unedited descriptive paragraph. Immediately below it is the same paragraph, after editing. After both paragraphs is the same paragraph with my editing marks and my comments in brackets. In this particular case, the author has asked for a heavier edit, so I have changed some words.

She had wild, curly black hair that reminded Byron of an evil witch on a wild and stormy day, casting magic spells with clawlike hands and a cackling laugh. She seemed like she ought to be unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, the woman might actually be beautiful, if she would cut her hair or style it in a different way. She had deep, soulful brown eyes that you could hardly see because of her fierce frown and angry scowl. Byron noticed that she wore filmy layers of gauzy clothing that looked so voluminous that he could hardly tell what she was actually wearing. She seemed like the type of person to wear black or gray, but Byron was surprised to notice that she was actually wearing a soft and delicate white-colored tunic with bright turquoise pants. He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious, frightening and odd woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch casting a spell. She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored to realize that she had a melodious and bird-like voice. “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she trilled musically.

This is the edited paragraph:

She had wild black hair that reminded Byron of a witch in a storm, cackling and casting spells with her claw-like hands. The woman ought to have been unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, she might actually be beautiful, if she cut her hair or styled it in differently. She had soulful brown eyes that Bryon could hardly see because of her fierce scowl. Byron noticed that she wore layers of gauzy clothing so voluminous that he could hardly determine the shape of her body. She seemed like someone who would wear black or gray, and Byron was surprised that her tunic was a delicate white and that her pants were bright turquoise. He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch. She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored. “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she said musically.

This is the paragraph with my editing marks and comments:

She had wild, curly [Even thought “wild,” “curly” and “black” all effectively describe the woman’s hair, using only two of the words conveys the same idea more concisely.] black hair that reminded Byron of an evil witch oin a wild and stormy day, cackling and [Keeping the two verbs, “cackling” and “casting,” together creates a nice parallelism and trims the sentence down. The “laugh” following “cackling” seems unnecessary, since “cackling” already incorporates the idea of laughing.] casting magicspells with her clawlike hands and a cackling laugh. She The woman [After the talk of the witch, I’m just clarifying the identity of “she.”] seemed like she ought to have been unattractive, but she really wasn’t. In fact, the woman she might actually be beautiful, if she would [The conditional “would” doesn’t seem necessary here.] cut her hair or styled it in a differentlyway. She had deep, soulful brown eyes that youByron [I’m keeping the focus on Byron, as the one doing the observing.] could hardly see because of her fierce frown and angry scowl [I don’t think that both “fierce frown” and “angry scowl” are necessary. You could also say “fierce frown” or “angry scowl.” I just picked the most descriptive noun and adjective.] Byron noticed that she wore filmy [“Filmy” sufficiently incorporates the idea of “gauzy.”] layers of gauzy clothing that looked so voluminous that he could hardly tell what she was actually wearingdiscern the shape of her body. [Because Byron has already described what the woman is actually wearing, it seemed like this sentence ought to end differently. You might also say, “could hardly tell what she actually looked like.”] She seemed like the type of person to someone who would wear black or gray, butand Byron was surprised to notice that she was actually wearingher tunic was a soft and delicate white-colored tunicwithand that her pants were bright turquoise pants. [I eliminated “notice,” because Byron had noticed her clothing in the previous sentence.] He hadn’t heard her speak, but Byron imagined that this mysterious, frightening and odd [Only one adjective seems necessary here, and based on the previous description, the woman seems more mysterious than odd or frightening.] woman would have a deep and gravelly voice, like a witch casting a spell. [Because Byron mentions spell-casting in the opening sentence, it didn’t seem necessary here.] She finally opened her mouth and spoke, and Byron was floored. [Ending the sentence with “floored” emphasizes Byron’s surprise.] to realize that she had a melodious and bird-like voice [“Musically,” in the next sentence, sufficiently gets across the idea of “bird-like” and “melodious.”] “Welcome to beginning yoga,” she saidtrilled musically. [“Trilled” is so associated with birds that it might tend to distract the reader.]

For more about “trilled” and other overly descriptive terms, please read my earlier blog post, “Precise But Distracting.”

I would be happy to help you with any descriptive paragraph-writing you need to do. I look forward to hearing from you.

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