One Example of Why Less Is More When Writing Description

Why Less Is More When Writing DescriptionIn trying to make scenes come to life for readers, you may be tempted to begin writing description after tantalizing description—all the vivid metaphors and similes you can think of. If one vibrant image is good, then two should definitely double your money, right? Ironically, just the opposite is true.

As fellow fantasy author Jane Lebak once pointed out:

Sometimes 1+1=0. Two is bad. Give the reader one thing to concentrate on. Pick the better of the two.

What Happens When You Give Readers Too Many Great Images?

I stumbled across a good example of how even one too many descriptors can sap the life out of an otherwise great writing description. In this Young Adult book, the author describes a dying World War II vet’s vivid nightmare. He dreams that, while in battle, his body starts to fall apart.

The author writes about…

…the body breaking into tiny bits, crumbling off his trunk like cheese being grated from a slab—or like a leper, unraveling.

Her first image, of the cheese grater, is a marvelously powerful bit of writing that conveys her meaning perfectly.

But does the tacked-on second image of the leper add anything to the scene? Nope. In fact, it only detracts from the power of the first image. It feels as if the author were afraid readers wouldn’t get the first description, so she threw in a second as a safety net.

Trust Yourself, Trust Your Readers, Trust Your Writing Description

The whole point of vibrant images is that they are capable of standing alone.

As poet Robert Southey said:

It is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.

If you find yourself needing to prop up a descriptive image with a second or third descriptor, then the first one probably wasn’t that vibrant to begin with and needs to be rewritten.

Trust readers to get what you’re saying the first time around—and trust your word pictures to stand on their own by remembering that, often, less is more.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! When writing description, how do you determine when you’ve hit upon the perfect phrase? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Funny how the comments are so short.


  1. […] Maybe there’s a decent metaphor in there somewhere, but mostly it’s just way, way, way too much. Not only will this kind of writing make it sound like the author is showing off, it will ultimately and ironically end up distracting from whatever it’s actually describing. […]

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