Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How To Edit Description

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

On Monday, Stephanie talked about how to make your setting come alive in edits. My job is to show you how that looks. As Stephanie mentioned, most all of us can see the setting in our imaginations, but it can be tricky to learn how to get what's in our head onto the page. Description is important. It's necessary. Readers need to know certain things, like where the characters are, what time of day it is, who is in the room, etc. It's also important to make memorable some of the places your characters go. This takes practice, but it also takes editing. And as you practice editing, you'll start to learn whether you have too much description, not enough, if you're telling the readers things or if your simply using bland words that don't do a great job of painting word pictures in your readers' minds. Take a look at the following examples to see if you can identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Too little?
You’re an under-describer. You describe pretty much nothing unless by accident. Your readers can’t picture your setting at all and they don’t know what anyone in your story looks like. 
Kate entered the house and glanced around. Creepy. Could the place really be haunted? And even if it was, would she have time to get upstairs and find the clue before the ghost came after her? Only one way to find out. She ran up two flights of stairs to the attic.

The plot seems to have Kate entering a haunted house with the goal of obtaining something from upstairs. She is worried there might be ghosts around, but we don't see any. We don't see anything at all. I'm not really scared for her. Some description of what she sees would greatly help increase the tension and emotion of the scene. The house is important here. It should be memorable.

Too much?

You love description and can’t help but putting into your story every tiny detail, but your readers get bored—completely overwhelmed by the long paragraphs of description distracting them from the plot. 
Kate stepped gingerly up the cracked steps and over a jagged hole in the porch to the front door. She could see blades of grass and dandelions poking through from underneath. A sheet of white cobwebs had completely ensconced the doorknob. How would she open the door? She pulled the sleeve of her blue fleece hoodie over her hand and turned the knob. She felt the latch click just as three spiders crawled out from beneath the thick web and onto her sleeve. She screeched and shoved the door inward, pulling back her hand and shaking it, wiggling in something akin to a tribal dance, shuddering all the while. The spiders fell to the porch and scrambled into the hole. Good riddance.
The hinges creaked as the door swung slowly open. Kate inched toward the opening, the toes of her Toms lined up perfectly outside the threshold. Blackness filled the doorway and she couldn’t make out what was inside. Reluctantly, she crossed over the threshold, took three tentative steps inside, placing each foot carefully in case there were holes in the floor inside as well. 
A musty smell made her gag, and she covered her mouth and nose with her hand. A beam of sunlight speared through the room and dust particles rioted in the golden glow. Beyond, everything was dark, but slowly came into a dim focus. She stood in an entry way at the foot of a long staircase with a banister on one side and a wall on the other that was covered with tattered paintings. She had to go upstairs to find the clue, so she ignored the rest of the house and began to climb.

This description was far more interesting. We do get a sense of why Kate is afraid. But the pacing is dragging out a little too slowly here. It would be nice to move things along. Plus, description should leave some room for the imagination, and there is little unsubscribed in the example above.

Too plain?
You give the facts—basic and no frills. It’s like you’re in a race, and if you're editing a first draft, you probably were. 
Kate walked up the steps and entered through a door that creaked and was covered in cobwebs and spiders. The foyer was dark black, but once her eyes adjusted, she started up the stairs, knowing that the clue would be found in the attic.

In the words of George Bailey, “Well, here’s your hat, what's your hurry?” This description is sprinting along. See if you can go in and turn each sentence in to two sentences. Or add another sentence in between the ones you have. Also, replace the vague words with specific ones. "Walked" could be "crept" to help give readers an idea of how Kate might be feeling. "Gloomy" is a more powerful word than "dark" and it also paints an emotion. And my guess is, the foyer isn't black at all but shades of gray and brown. Give us just a few details. Torn wallpaper, maybe. That musty smell. Cobwebs that tickle the neck. Sounds elsewhere in the house. You don't have to give the readers a lot, but what you do choose to give them should be fitting and memorable. Try to work in some more of the five senses as well.

Too fancy?
You love flowery language and like to paint the perfect image of everything your character can see. 
Kate inched up the gray, rotting steps that were putrid with the stench of decomposition. She opened an decrepit door, thick with sticky cobwebs. The hinges squeaked like a mouse being trod upon by an iron boot. Like a stealthy ninja, Kate slipped inside a drab foyer, so cold and uninviting that made her feel like it was sucking all the light from her very soul. Her blinking eyes caught sight of a narrow staircase carpeted in a thin, gaudy pattern, and she crept up the stairs one at a time, her heart pounding with each creak. Certain she could feel the icy beams of a ghost’s eyes piercing the back of her neck, she quickly made her way up toward the attic.

This paragraph has lots of telling and some descriptions and metaphors that are trying way too hard. Description should not be cliche, nor should it be so odd and puzzling that it pulls the reader from the story. It's good to add lots of descriptive words, but some of these feel wrong and the overuse of adjectives feels formulaic, as if every noun must have one. Try not to let your description work too hard.

Too passive?
You stop your story to describe things rather than have your character interact with the setting. 
The house sat crooked, like the foundation was bad and it might collapse at any moment. The porch was rotted and filled with holes, the door covered in cobwebs. Inside, everything was dark but for a single beam of sunlight that pierced through a crack in one of the boarded-up windows, lighting a plain foyer and a stairs that ran along one wall and was carpeted in a thin, gaudy pattern.

This description feels like a narrator hijacked the story, completely stopped the action, and gave us his version of how things looked. Description should be active and moving in a way that matches the pacing in the scene. Try to use Kate's movements to trigger the things that are described. Description should also come through the eyes of the point of view character. What is described should be things Kate can physically see and they should be described in words she would use. 

Most importantly, description should serve at least two purposes. It should describe and _______ (characterize or create emotion or reveals a clue or advance the plot) etc.

Here is my final draft of Kate entering the haunted house:

It's not perfect, but I tried to take the best parts of all the above descriptions and add some personality for Kate. I'd probably rewrite it another three or four times before being truly happy with it, but I think it does the job of getting Kate inside, describing the place, and giving a sense of foreboding to the reader.

Kate crept up the rotting porch steps to the front door, her heart pounding. A sheet of thick, white cobwebs had been knitted around the doorknob. She pulled her sleeve over her hand and turned the knob, wincing. Just as the latch clicked, a huge spider crawled out from beneath the thick web. Kate jumped back and shoved the door inward, pulling her hand away and shivering all over. This place was likely crawling with spiders.
The door gaped open now, revealing nothing but blackness inside. Kate pulled on her hood to keep anything from crawling down her neck, kept a close eye on the spider scuttling across the door, held her breath, and darted through the opening.
Inside she relaxed. It was cooler out of the sun and smelled of old books. She blinked her eyes into focus and found herself standing in a plain foyer with a narrow staircase running up one wall. She stepped over gray, scuffed wood to the runner of worn, faded blue carpet that ran up the stairs. Portraits covered in dust and cobwebs hung at intervals along the stairwell wall. A single beam of sunlight pierced through a crack in one of the boarded-up windows above the front door and landed on a picture of a young man from a different era. He seemed to be staring at her. 
Focus, Kate. You’re taking too long. Up to the attic, then get out.
She jogged up the stairs, strangely feeling like the young man from the portrait was watching her every move.

Here are some more posts on the topic of description that you might find helpful:

How To Describe A Place
How To Describe People
Describing Characters Through Characters
Describing Through Character's Interests
#WeWriteBooks, Post 21: Description
10 Tips For Tight Descriptions
8 Tips for Creating Great Descriptions

So what kind of describer are you? Share in the comments which of the above you tend to do, and if you want to share a paragraph of description that you're proud of or would like feedback on, feel free to paste it in the comments as well.

Help, please?

Tinker, the first installment in my children's chapter book series, is free on Amazon Kindle this week until Saturday. I'm hoping as many people as possible will download a copy to help it get lots of exposure. If you're a Kindle user, would you do me a favor and grab a copy of Tinker? And if you don't mind spreading the word, feel free to share the image below. For those who want to help, here's a few phrases you could copy and paste. Thanks so much! I appreciate you all. :-)

Download Tinker free on Kindle through Saturday. A great story for readers ages 6-13.

What's this? A fairytale retelling for boys? With a science experiment included? Download a free Kindle copy of Tinker through Saturday.

A boy an his robot dog set out to win the recycle race in Tinker, free on Kindle through Saturday. A great story for readers ages 6-13.


  1. I have, in the past, had a strong tendency toward too much description as well as too passive. I've gotten better at both, the former due to haste and the latter more to conscious effort. This was very thorough and helpful. Thank you for putting the time into writing this post for us, Mrs. Williamson!

    1. You're welcome, Olivia! I'm glad you're getting this thing figured out. There is no substitute for hard work and practice. Good job!

  2. I think I'm incline to be too passive in my descriptions. Sometimes I don't describe much at all, and then I realize that. But, in the process, I stop the story to describe.

    These are really helpful examples! Thanks!

    1. I used to do exactly the same thing, Rachelle. I still do sometimes. Then I have to fix it all in editing. ;-)

  3. I'm definitely too passive! I'll download Tinker straight away. Short but unrelated question: is the Chicago Manual of Style just for in America or is it universal (e.g. in Britain)?

    1. Good question, Claudia. One I don't know. I'll ask around and get back to you. I do know that if you live in Britain but want to be published in the USA, you need to use the Chicago Manual of Style. But if you want to be published in Britain, I'm not sure. Hold tight while I ask some people. And thanks for downloading Tinker. It's free in the UK Amazon store, too, if you live there.

    2. Sorry it took so long to get back to you, Claudia. The consensus is that there are a lot of differences in punctuation. This book was mentioned by all: The Oxford Manual of Style.

      It was also recommended that if you're writing for the UK, to set your spell check to use the UK English dictionary.

  4. This is exactly the post I need! I'm definitely too fancy, lmao.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  5. I really like this post! It will help me a LOT. The other day I found a scrap of story that I wrote 3 years ago.... I have improved SOOO much, and I noticed that I was a bare-bones writer. I just got out what I needed and that's it.

    I still do that. :D

  6. I'm too passive/forget to write description at all, so this is really helpful! I just downloaded Tinker and can't wait to read it! (Even though it's for boys XD I have a habit of reading outside "my audience" or whatever.)

  7. Thanks for the tips! Super helpful! <3