One of the things I’ve noticed in editing is that people have this love affair with adjectives and adverbs. Now, you’ve probably heard people scream and stamp their feet about adverbs and while I’m inclined to agree that they are, often, less-than-stellar, that’s not quite what I’m getting at.
A lot of the time, I see descriptions like this:
The woman had long, dark, gleaming hair.
Now, it gives an alright picture of the hair, but really doesn’t capture the reader. It’s like reading off a menu that says, “This dish contains salt, peanuts, and monkey feet.” While it’s certainly informative, it’s not particularly imaginative, nor is it extremely interesting.
The best descriptions I usually see include a little more than just a string of adjectives all stuck together like so many crackers with peanut butter (commas) in between. You try and put all of those in your mouth at once and you’re going to be unintelligible and you’ll never get it all out of your teeth.
A description should be like eating a decadent dessert: sumptuous and silky. Well, most of the time. It would be hard to describe a gaping wound in your character’s face in delicious language to anyone but a zombie. But they’re into that kind of thing anyway. However, you get my point.
Now, what do I mean? I mean exactly this: describe with phrases and feeling, not strings of words. Like so!
The woman’s dark hair gleamed in the low light, curling gently as it fell down to the curve of her waist.
See the difference? While it says the same things (albeit in a slightly different order), it gives you a far different image. And creates a vision in the reader’s mind in a different manner than the first one. While the first description tells you what you’re seeing (I see a length of straight, black hair – like a wig), the second tells you what you’re seeing and creates a different mental image (I see a woman smiling a little and standing in candle-light).
Of course, there are times when a string of descriptive words might be apt and I’m not telling you to eschew them altogether, just always be thinking of other ways to describe things. You don’t have to be verbose, either – sometimes condensing several adjectives into a single one that conveys your meaning (there are times when one word can do the job of several) is best.
Actually, the same goes for adverbs. Adverbs are the culprit of many a “show, don’t tell” marking in my editing – though, that said, they’re not always bad. Just make sure that you use them knowingly, not just tossing them in there without thinking.