Description is easy to do in a first draft. We’re writers: we know how to visualize things, and how to put what we see in our minds into words. If we don’t know how to do this, we might want to consider another profession.
But when we’re revising, or otherwise getting from crappy first draft to the next stage of viable fiction, it becomes a troubling judgement call. How much description – of people, places and things – do we use? How do we know what to put in and what to leave out? We’re told that it’s an important guideline to have only essential words, no more. But some description is surely necessary, and not having enough can lead readers to wander off, their own imaginations not engaged.
Here’s one way to make the judgement call. Recognize that description is not a tool for letting your readers see what you see. It’s a tool for letting your readers see the person who is looking. In other words, the way things are described tells us a great deal about the character who is describing them. Their worldview imbues every glance, every color, every line. That’s what description is for.
Let’s take a sunlit, recently rained-on meadow with butterflies. Blue sky, a single tree on a hill, red flowers, the works. Three people with three different outlooks are looking at it from the top of the trail that leads back into town.
Reggie – The clouds were gone. The sun cascaded down, flooding the hilltop with warmth and crowning the white flowers on the treetop with gold. Countless jewels of water shone from the red flower petals. Butterflies worshipped there, and he thought deliriously that at any moment a regal deer or a fox might appear, at which point he would have no choice but to shout with joy.
Sheryl – Red flowers at intervals dotted the damp grass, right down the hill to her already muddy feet. The field was scattered with dancing insects, overlain with a blanket of blue sky and set off with a single tree, its branches too sparse to offer shelter. There was little warmth to the newly appearing sun, and it was a long way back to town.
Ginger – A carmine spill of flowers, the color of blood and diamonds, ran from the tree stabbed into the hilltop. She stopped, her feet caught in sucking mud, just under the trees where the sun couldn’t quite reach. The field hosted a myriad flittering wisps of color, each of them subject to pouncing death lurking under the grass. Wasps, maybe, or sparrows, or even frogs. It was wet enough for frogs.
Though each paragraph describes the same location, it certainly tells you at least as much about the characters as about the place. Not to mention about the writer’s individual voice.