Writing Advice: Descriptions

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Descriptions. They’re kind of an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of writing that you’ll eventually encounter. But that doesn’t meant they’ll be simple or easy to write. In fact, they can be downright torturous to get right when you’re working on a story. Some authors seem to let descriptions flow from their pens so easily and when I read those kinds of descriptions, I get incredibly envious. When I’m approaching a description of a character or a setting in my writing, I can’t help but over-think the process for some reason. I start to wonder exactly how much I should reveal to the reader, and whether I should withhold certain details to be parsed out later throughout the narrative. Over the years I’ve tried to maintain one rule regarding descriptions and I found that piece of advice in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Same for places and things.

Personally I think this is great advice and I’ve found examples of it in many of my favorite books. If you include an incredibly detailed description of a person, down to the color of their hair and the gold flecks in their eyes, you’re doing too much work for your readers. I think you have to rely on your readers to do a bit of imagining on their own, and they’ll appreciate that. Descriptions that detailed insult your reader’s intelligence and send the message that you, as the author, want to control the reader’s perception of what you’ve written. There’s a great quote out there that says once you’ve put the words down, your story no longer belongs to you. It belongs to your readers. So they’re going to imagine things on their own anyway.

Basically, don’t over-describe. Use a minimum of details that give your readers just a hint of what your characters might look like. And then trust that they’ll fill in the gaps that you left for them.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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