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. Very informative. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the good advice!

  3. That was excellent! Thanks!

  4. Glad you all enjoyed it!

  5. Excellent post! I’m trying to keep this in mind as I write the next chapter in my WIP.

    You made a good point about the leper description taking away from the the (much better)cheese grater image. Good advice.

  6. It’s a good way to slim your word count too!

  7. Great vlog post, and so very true. Less is almost always more.

  8. We so often think we need to pad our words, but it’s amazing how sleek and fast they are when we cut the dead weight.

  9. Ha! My problem has never been too many words. I suffer from not having enough and I struggle to reach a decent word count.

    Maybe you can blog or vlog on that topic and explain how to do that without adding too much description, unnecessary fat, or veering away from the purpose of the story.

    Just a thought. 😉

  10. I’ll definitely keep it in mind, but since it’s a not a problem I’ve ever personally encountered, I don’t feel qualified to expound on it too much.

  11. Thanks for the mention!

  12. Thanks for the help!

  13. @Philangelus: My pleasure!

    @Kelly: Glad you found it helpful.

  14. Very true. Using too many metaphors or similes is like putting too much salt in a dish.

  15. Good comparison. Salt is great; metaphors are great. But overuse either and the dish is spoiled.

  16. Wonderful. Thanks for this 🙂

  17. Cops can tell if a suspect is lying by how hard he/she tries to convince the cops they are telling the truth. The more details the suspect adds, the more suspicious the cops become.

    Maybe writing is like that too. Is the author saying, “Do you believe me, huh? Do you?”

  18. @Tabitha: You’re welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Lorna: Fabulous comparison! I’ll have to remember that.

  19. Excellent, as always. It’s funny, I just read the YA book you were quoting and I thought the same thing ;o)

  20. Great minds think alike and all that! 😉

  21. A really important lesson for me. I always tend to write to much in hopes of describing it better. It is hard for me to trust my readers much 😉 But if I don’t, they won’t trust me either 🙁
    This author reader relationship is tricky.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with piling on the descriptors in the first draft. We just then need to remember to go back and delete all the but the single best one.

  22. Lance Haley says

    Thanks K.M –

    Brevity has never been my strong suit given that I am a trial lawyer. There is an old rather humorous yarn that “Lawyers are paid by the word.” Guilty as charged.

    Thanks for the reminder. I just cut and pasted this into a Scapple note as a constant reminder to me that “Less is more.”

  23. Marissa John says

    Great articles. A mentor once advised me to describe enough to engage the reader’s imagination. I like your suggestions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s all about finding the “telling detail” (which, ironically, is ultimately about “showing”). Find the right detail to bring the scene to life, and you’ll only need the one.

  24. Great thoughts and I also love watching your older videos. 😀

  25. 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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