Getting Better

[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]

The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.

In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.

There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.

The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.


  1. Just remember as you listen to all of these fools (kidding) who say you need more description, you have at least one reader who thinks otherwise. 😉

    But you’re right, writers should always listen and consider ways to improve their work.

    By the way I finished your long short story last night … you do the concept of a long short story justice. Well done!

    1. Well, I’ll appreciate you being there to keep from going too far with description! 🙂 And thank you so much for reading 1NG4–I really appreciate it!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Berthold! And I’m sorry you couldn’t post your comment for some reason. Hopefully it was just a weird fluke, but please let me know if it happens again so I can yell at GoDaddy. 🙂

    But, I’m glad you decided to share your insightful post here. One of the things I’ve learned through my studies is that tools in fiction are just that–just like you can use a hammer to build a birdhouse for your grandmother or to bludgeon her to death so you can steal her prize jewelry, the tool itself is neutral…it’s all in the usage.

    With description, the key is to sense EVERYTHING through the character. There’s shouldn’t be one word that isn’t filtered through opinion and emotion. I’ve been re-reading many of my favorite books and stories and seeing that so many of their openings are filled with description, but with a strong voice through the character’s viewpoint. I never even realized I was really reading pure description, often for 1,000+ words, until I went back to purposely study it. It just has to be done interestingly.

    For example, instead of “There was a shoe box on the table,” it should be something like, “There was a dusty, torn Nike shoe box on the dining room table which reminded Daryl just how much he hated his roommates.”

    I can’t recommend enough the Depth workshop here ( It really opened my eyes to what it means to write compelling description. Worth checking out if you can invest the dough.

  3. You’re welcome. I agree with a number of other commenters that the description needs to be interesting and integral to the story. I re-read The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. A book I love and have read three or four times. This was the first time since I became a full time writer. I was shocked at how much description of flowers, and trees, food and clothing. Something I would normally consider to be overkill, but it was needed for someone not familiar with India to understand the setting. Today’s readers might not have the patience for this type of book.

    1. Could be, although my impression is that today’s readers do like long books. They won’t even look at short stories, novellas, etc. Description goes a long way towards making a novel.

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