Chronicling The Craft: How to Identify and Cut Down on Lengthy Descriptions

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Chronicling The Craft is a series where I share my experience with working on my YA fantasy novel THE KEEPER’S CURSE, which is now in its third draft. These articles alternate between a) progress updates and fun “TKC-related” content, and b) revising / editing tips. Today’s post is the tips-oriented post to celebrate 20% completion of Draft #3.

Going into the WIP’s third draft, I was aware that one of its lingering weaknesses was overdescription. I tend to overwrite in general, but it’s most noticeable when I’m describing character appearances, setting, and action. So, one of the major questions has been, “How do I use fewer words to convey the same meaning or paint the same picture?”

Today’s Chronicle will focus on answering that question. I’ll share strategies that can help you identify overly descriptive areas in your manuscript, as well as tips for shortening descriptions as you edit. I’ll also explain it’s more important to make your own decisions as to how much description is enough, rather than following specific word- or sentence-length recommendations.

A “Rule of Thumb” & Factors to Consider When Writing or Editing Descriptions

Let’s start with a Description Rule of Thumb:

“A description should be long enough to feel complete, and to paint a picture for the reader without going overboard.”

Like paragraphs, descriptions can’t be narrowed down to a specific number of lines or sentences. All writers have their own opinions about what constitutes as “enough.” The point here is that the number of words, lines, or sentences that are necessary for description will fluctuate throughout a story; and it’s up to the writer to recognize the difference between “enough” and “too much.”

Achieving the right balance might take a couple revision or editing passes. And while it’s important for descriptions to appeal to the senses and include specific images or details, writers need to choose that level of detail with care. So, when editing your manuscript, be mindful of storytelling elements that can influence how much description is necessary at any point:

  • Subject: What is the character, place, or item being described? If it’s simple or unremarkable in appearance, does it need as many words as a more complex or intricate subject?
  • Scene & Pacing: What type of scene (e.g., action / danger, moment of reflection) features this description? How would description length affect its pacing?
  • Mood: What is the POV character’s current attitude, feeling, or bias? How might this influence word choice as well as the amount of time that the character would focus on the subject?
  • Timing: How much time does the POV character have to focus on the subject? If he’s on a quest and spends an uneventful night at one location, describing that location won’t hold much weight compared to a location where a more significant event occurs.

How to Identify Lengthy Descriptions In Your Manuscript

If overdescription is one of your WIP’s weaknesses, you’ll need to be observant of how lengthy description impacts pacing, paragraph length, and other aspects. Fortunately, two methods can alert you to such areas in your manuscript. You can use either if you have a preference, or try both.

Method #1 – Imitating a Final Print Copy: Instead of printing with 1-inch margins and your preferred font, change the formatting in a separate file so that the document resembles the pages of a printed book. This will give the manuscript a new look and allow you to read the story from a fresh perspective. Plus, the changes in font and margins will easily draw your attention to lengthy paragraphs that you didn’t notice before.

For example, look what happened to this section of the manuscript when I changed the original formatting (left image) to the imitation print-copy (right image):

TKC screenshots

 

See how long those first two paragraphs are on the imitation print copy? I probably should have noticed it in the original version, but changing the formatting finally brought it to my attention. And when it did, I was mortified by how much page-time I spent summarizing what the dwelling looks like.

[FYI: Curious about my imitation print-copy settings? I started each new chapter about one-third of the way down the page and used 12-point Garamond font, 1.7 line spacing, 0.25-inch tabs for new paragraphs, 1-inch margins on the sides, and 2-inch margins on the top and bottom.]

Method #2 – Reading the Passage(s) Aloud: This can help if Method #1 isn’t enough. As you read select passages out loud, pay attention to the words as well as the way your voice or throat reacts to the passage. Do you feel long-winded in the middle of a long sentence or paragraph? Does it sound like you’ve used too many adjectives? If you read slowly and carefully, the editor within can often detect overwriting based on sound and physiological sensations.

Reading out loud is beneficial for single paragraphs as well as complete scenes or chapters. However, the longer the passage, the more time you’ll need to set aside. If you plan to read longer sections, do yourself a favor and make the time (and have a glass of water handy) because it works. Reading a particular description out loud during Draft #2 of TKC helped me realize I had used three sentences to describe a table that appears once in the story – a beautiful table, but one that’s not as important as other objects.

Three Techniques for Cutting Down on Overdescription

Technique #1: Limit modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs.

There’s nothing wrong with an aptly chosen adjective and the once-in-a-great-while adverb. However, an over-reliance on these modifiers can slow the overall pace, make descriptions longer than necessary, and increase your word count significantly. So when looking for ways to cut down on overwriting, start with the modifiers in your descriptions.

If possible, give yourself a low maximum for the number of modifiers you use. One or two per noun is ideal, if they’re needed at all. The lower the threshold, the more it forces you to be creative and specific with modifiers – and specificity is crucial when trimming a story’s word count. You’ll recognize your strongest choices for modifiers when they accurately and succinctly describe the noun they’re modifying while appealing to one or more of the influential elements listed in the “Rule of Thumb” section.

Some writers recommend staying away from a thesaurus or dictionary. My advice? Use them when editing – but use them, especially the thesaurus, with care. Going synonym-happy without researching definitions can lead to inappropriate word choices and unintentional altering or obscuring of descriptions. Instead, start with the thesaurus, then look up each candidate’s definition in a dictionary. This will give you a better grasp on what each synonym means and help you make a more educated decision on which modifiers to use. Online dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com also have synonym or thesaurus “widgets” for most definition entries.

Example of Excessive Modifiers (Draft #2):

It had found magic. Not the frolicking, pearlescent flame of Fei hakria, but a contradiction. Subtle and remote, a brush of candlelight in a cavern of darkness. What in Tovana’s name would carry such an energy?

Edited Version (Draft #3):

It had found someone else’s magic – not the lively flame of Fei magic, but something more subtle, a brush of candlelight in a cavern of darkness. What in Tovana’s name would carry such an energy?

Technique #2: Opt for nouns and verbs that are precise and vivid.

Using specific nouns can also eliminate unnecessary modifiers and prune overdescription. Instead of embellishing with adjectives, choose the most precise noun for what you’re describing. What happens when you change “tropical flower” to “hibiscus,” “weathered grey rock” to “limestone,” or “green gemstones” to “emeralds”? Do the mental images become clearer and more concrete? And, do you notice how each specific noun chips away one or two words from the original choices?

The same goes for verbs. As author Rebecca McClanahan says in Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively“Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.” The stronger and more explicit your verb choices are, the more they’ll enhance your vision for that scene while shaving off words. For instance, does the hero run slowly – or does he jog, trot, or lope? Does his sister knead her bread dough forcefully – or does she punch it? This advice especially holds true for action scenes, where too many modifiers can slow a breathless pace to a crawl.

Be patient when scrutinizing your noun and verb choices, though. Finding the right ones for the scene or mood can require more time and research, depending on the type of subject or action you’re describing. But when you see how much more efficient your writing becomes without losing its potency, you’ll know it was worth the effort.

Example of Less Specific Nouns and/or Verbs (Draft #2):

The Kaselia’s colossal, downward-sloped wall revealed rows and rows of Fei already seated. Still more Fei darted into the arena through its columns and arcades of dark iroad wood. Cheers, lilting songs, and the booming voice of the announcer Nabiomar as he warmed up pierced through the hum of thousands of pairs of wings, sending thrills through me from fingertip to toe.

Edited Version (Draft #3):

The arena’s colossal, down-sloped wall revealed rows and rows of Fei already seated. Still more Fei darted inside through its dark-wood columns and arcades. Chants and drumbeats sounded over the hum of hundreds of pairs of wings, sending thrills through me from fingertip to toe.

Technique #3: Eliminate unnecessary details.

I admit that I’m guilty of abusing this last technique. When I describe anything in a story, I often include every possible detail. No wonder Draft #1’s word count was so bloated and certain passages felt slower than they should have. (And those super-long blocks of paragraphs… *shudders*) I was relying too much on sharing my vision for each scene as completely as possible, and the story suffered for it.

And I’m not alone. As Laura Chasen says in this post at BookBub, even bestselling authors make this mistake, especially when describing action:

I find that many writers have a hard time letting readers intuit action — especially physical action — in a scene. It’s very common to find characters who, for instance, “walk across a room, open a door, walk through the door, and then close the door.” Such detail can become laborious for readers and slow down pacing. All that’s really needed is for the character to “walk through the door.” Readers will naturally intuit the rest.

What can we do about overabundant details? Get to the point. Include the most important details, then move on or delete the rest. One or two sentences might be all you need to convey your vision. Moving select details to other appropriate parts of the manuscript can help, too. However you remedy this issue will allow you to control the pace and flow better and to cut down on intimidating paragraph blocks and high word counts.

Don’t be surprised if this is the most challenging of the three techniques to apply to your work. It requires self-trust – trust that you, the writer, have offered enough information to let the reader’s imagination infer the rest. Switching to a reader’s perspective can help, though, and that’s where Methods #1 or #2 for identifying overdescription come in handy. By refreshing your view of the story (either via print or reading out loud), you’ll catch areas of long-winded or overburdened text. Just remember to be patient and open to changes, and – above all – to trust yourself.

Example of Unnecessary Details (Draft #2):

Home was a kagende that overlooked the Kenehi River on the outskirts of Netarlena, a treehouse of sorts that Gidion and I shared with his mother and father. That Commontongue word “treehouse” was only half-true, though. The higher level, which held our small bedrooms and a sitting room, was built around and under the iroad tree’s high-arcing branches, its palm-shaped leaves mixed with thatching for the roof. The other rooms were burrowed underground. When the hatch door dug into the earth was opened, it revealed wooden steps that led to a dining table, a hearth room where Aunt Maji cooked and we entertained visitors, and a storeroom for fruits and vegetables. It was a humble home, with few decorations and only the necessary chairs and furnishings, but it had everything we needed.

Aunt Maji was outside plucking herbs in her garden when we arrived. Gidion swooped down to see her while I flew up into the kagende’s higher level and into my bedroom to put away my weapons. Once they were packed in the trunk under my hammock, I stretched out my arms and wings, satisfied as it pulled deep into my bones, and let out a sigh. The trickling of the Kenehi drifted through the open window, a cryptic yet comforting whisper. When Aunt Maji and Uncle Lusan had adopted me after my parents died, Gidion had volunteered to move into the empty bedroom so I could have the one that faced the river. “It keeps me awake at night,” he had said then, when he was eight and I was five. “Kiora says the river talks to us. If it wants to talk to me, why can’t it wait until sunrise?” But the Kenehi’s current hadn’t bothered me. Its murmurs had soothed my cries and lulled me to sleep long after the others had gone to bed, when I used to let myself drown in the absence of my own kiora and kioro. Now, it was as dear as an old friend.

Edited Version (Draft #3):

We rushed to our kagende on the banks of the Kenehi River, just outside Netarlena. Uncle Lusan hadn’t come home yet, but Aunt Maji was already underground, preparing dinner in the hearth-fire kitchen. Gidion went to greet her, while I flew to my bedroom in the treetop level, dipping in through the open window. Kagende bedrooms weren’t extravagant. Mine was only large enough for a hammock, a trunk for clothes and trinkets, and a desk and stool in the corner. I didn’t need much else, though; and with the thatched roof, wooden walls and floor, and one of the iroad tree’s branches curving through the back, the room was my haven, snug and surrounding me with Tovana’s gifts.

I laid my weapons under my hammock, then stretched my arms and wings and wandered to the window. The Kenehi flowed by a short walk away, its waters trickling and whispering. I rested my head against the windowframe and listened. Gidion had relinquished the room to me once his parents had adopted me. “I hate that river,” he had told me. “It keeps me awake at night. If it wants to talk to me, why can’t it wait until sunrise?” Yet I grew to love the Kenehi’s current for that reason. It had soothed my cries and lulled me to sleep long after the others had gone to bed. Now, it was like a dear friend.

Additional Links on Writing or Editing Descriptions

For more advice on writing or editing descriptions, check out these great articles from Ink & QuillsLitReactor, and Writer’s Digest. Also, if you’d like to try Method #1 for identifying lengthy descriptions, this post at The Book Designer recommends five fonts for interior book design. (Palatino Linotype, Georgia, and Times New Roman are also good choices.)

Do you have a habit of writing lengthy descriptions? How do you identify those areas when revising or editing? What other tips do you have to help writers who overwrite their descriptions?

By the way, did you catch the first half of the 20% progress report? Click here to read Thursday’s post, where I also shared some songs from TKC’s novel playlist.

33 thoughts on “Chronicling The Craft: How to Identify and Cut Down on Lengthy Descriptions

  1. A very informative post that every author can benefit from. My descriptions of setting are often small or non-existent, which is something I’ve to work on.
    Reading out loud seems like a very good idea to identify a lot of errors. I employ this frequently when I’m editing any piece, be it fiction or a technical report.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really useful article. I find lots of my students tend to overwrite – as do I during the first draft and then it’s quetion of paring down and refining the prose. Your examples and explanations are excellent:). I also find it very useful to let the computer read the prose aloud to you, while following the manuscript. Even the electronic voice will give you a heads-up when it is getting too wordy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sarah! And yes, I remember your suggestion about the computer’s “narrating” function. I might give that a try right before I sent the WIP to beta-readers, or after I incorporate beta-reader edits and (*gulp*) submit to agents.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always make it part of my editing schedule – apart from anything else, it is a really useful way of finding those small errors as the computer reads what is actually on the page, rather than what you think is there.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A really useful article to be bookmarked and referred to later when I hit the editing stage. 🙂

    I tend to overwrite as well. I feel like I need to get my vision across perfectly, but of course, as writers we do have to leave parts up to the reader. That’s the hard part.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is hard. I still struggle with it now and then, so it’s an ongoing process. Maybe it’s one of those things that gets easier with time? I guess we’ll find out as we keep writing and editing…

      Thanks very much, though, Phoenix. I’m glad you got something out of this post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dang, Sara! This is an awesome article! I actually have the opposite problem, where I can write dialogue but struggle with descriptions. BUT, this post is fantastic, and made me realize how much of a difference small changes can make. In the example of “It had found magic” I thought nothing was wrong with the first example but then I read the second and wow, it sounds so much better. Seriously helpful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alise! I love writing dialogue as well, but I tend to go long-winded on just about everything (especially descriptions). And I know other writers struggle with it, so I hope they’re able to take something positive away from this and apply it to their craft. And I’m glad you did as well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, this is great. I actually have the opposite problem—my scenes always end up very bare-boned and I have to go in and add in description later. I’m a lot better about that now than I used to be a couple years ago, but I still have that issue.

    Also, on the thesaurus. I try to never use the thesaurus in a “find a word that sounds more awesome” kind of way, but… like, different synonyms often have different nuances, so I try to find the word that a nuance that’s more beneficial than a different one. So, like, if I said, “he strode”, I’m not saying it just because it’s more interesting than “he walked”, but because “strode” has this certain feeling with it that fits the emotions/feel of the scene better.

    Anyway, good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Morgan! And you made a very good point about synonyms having different nuances. “Strode” gives a different impression about a person’s length of steps or current emotions while moving than “walked” does, just as “flit” or “glide” or “swoop” give much different “actionable” impressions than “fly” does. So I know what you’re talking about there. 😉

      Like

  6. Great advice as always, especially as I’m working through my editing stages. I’m terrible with cutting out words. I really need to work hard to distance myself from those length passages. This will be extremely helpful!
    Thank you ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Funny enough, at the moment I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum, but I still found your article insightful, as even though I don’t describe enough, I have some descriptions here and there that could be polished.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A few other commenters have said the same thing, that they have a greater problem giving enough description. It just goes to show how two writers can be on the opposite sides of a “technique” spectrum, doesn’t it?

      And thanks for reading! I’m glad you got something out of this post. 🙂

      Like

  8. These are some great tips! I have more of a tendency to expound too much on internal monologue and sometimes repeat myself. 😄 That’s mostly what I’ve been cutting lately. Reading aloud is my go to. My editing technique consists of reading once in my head then reading again out loud.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  10. Great tips, Sara, I like how you put this post together. Over-description and unnecessary add-ons are what I’ve been working to edit and revise, as well. And as you mentioned, I’ve seen many of these mistakes in published works, and in best-selling series that I enjoy.
    Being an author means we’re continually learning and growing. All I can do is do my best, and keep learning. I think we’ll all get there eventually.

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  12. Wow, really great post! I have another thing to suggest for identifying lengthy descriptions: my teacher recommended highlighting our manuscript with different colors for setting description, characterization, theme, etc, and I highlighted my first chapter and realized just how much more description than anything else I have. So yeah, I would say highlighting really helps. And I too want to describe every. single. detail. every time, and it’s a struggle to keep in what matters. I guess it has something to do with being a very visual person — I want people to imagine it all as well as I do.

    Liked by 1 person

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