Description, Writing Prompts

Why is descriptive writing so hard?

Writing prompt: Write a description of this picture and share it in the comments below.
Writing prompt: Write a description of this picture and share it in the comments below.

Lately, I’ve been working my way through the manuscript I started for my creative master’s thesis in an attempt to finally finish the novel already and get it published. As I am working my way through the novel this time, I am struck dumb by the lack of description in these first 90+ pages that are supposedly polished to the point of being publishable.

Two questions come to mind: first, how did this happen? And second, what the heck am I going to do about it?

I have gotten far enough away from the actual writing of this project that I feel as though I am seeing it through my “reader’s lens,” and I am really not happy with what I am reading. Sure, my dialog is awesome (I ROCK at dialog!), but there’s not a whole lot going on around that dialog.

What’s even more difficult is the fact that several highly-educated readers (MFA‘s and such) seemed to think these pages were pretty great, which leads me to doubt my judgement. And honestly, there’s this part of me — this lazy, lazy part of me — that would like to just agree with them that it’s all good and move on. But then again, what if it’s not?

Description has almost never been easy for me. I have a total of about three really great descriptive passages that I have written “while in the zone.” When I read these few passages, I always find myself thinking, “Did I really write that? That doesn’t sound like me at all!” And I wonder why I can’t write like that on command.

As for this particular manuscript, I really do believe it could benefit from some plumping up with description. I just can’t seem to figure out where to start. I hate heavy expository writing, so I worry about describing too much. I do subscribe to the “less is more” ideal when it comes to description, but at the same time, I know that I need to provide at least enough to help set the reader in the correct time and place to be able to understand the story.

How do you know if a scene needs more description when you as the writer can see every detail whether you’ve actually put it on the page or not? How do you close that gaping gap between what you think you’ve written and what you’ve actually written? Where do you start?

Mandy Webster

1 thought on “Why is descriptive writing so hard?”

  1. Can’t recall where it was but I once saw an analysis of successful writers that really resonated with me. The author’s premise was that most successful writers are really good at one or two things and adequate at everything else.

    So the reviewers that like it as-is may be appreciating your strengths and not worrying so much about the other bits. Of course, they may also think your descriptions are better than you do (I had a reader praise me for my own descriptions when I don’t especially find them very stand-out).

    If you think you really do need to amp up your descriptions, you can try various techniques. There are describers dictionaries that give you an idea how other writers described things. You can pick up a few novels whose descriptions you liked and see what they do.

    You can also go into the various descriptions and try re-writing them from a different sensory order: if you usually start with sight, start with sounds or smells or memories.

    Standard advice is to also make the description match the narrator’s emotional state. A person in a funk might see a room entirely differently than a person who has just met the love of their life. THe first might see clutter and dirt; the second might focus on colors, artwork, etc.

    Good luck!

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