Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as too much description.
Time, or the lack of same.
Attention spans, or the lack of same.
Kristen Lamb has summed this up perfectly in 3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing & Increase Sales.
Attention spans are shrinking. The average time spent on a website is roughly 3.5 minutes. I’d wager most people give a website 3.5 seconds to catch their attention and that 3.5 minutes only applies to those browsers who happen to stay.
We can apply these business lessons to our writing, because we writers also have something to sell. Our job is far tougher because 1) discoverability is a nightmare 2) less than 8% of the literate population are devoted readers 3) the remaining 92% equate reading with homework and a chore. Thus, we have the task of convincing 92% of the population to spend time they don’t have engaged in an activity they believe they dislike…and spend money to do it.
One thing Lamb didn’t specify is that we, the “8%”, are the highly influential arbiters for the other 92%. Our rave review of “Book X” might motivate one or more of our “92%” friends to pick up “Book X” and read it.
There’s more to all this than time and money, however.
When I wrote my original “Yes, Virginia…” post back in April 2011, I was wringing my first novel through the hands of a critique group. An environment which encouraged, and “enabled,” lavish descriptions. And yes, I mean “enabled,” in the sense of “enablers” helping you to abuse substances. In this case, words. More than once, I would find myself reading ten pages of beautiful, impeccably-crafted descriptions in scenes where nothing was actually happening.
I found myself motivated to post “Yes, Virginia…”, without elaborating the larger reasoning behind my favoring economy of words.
In the petri dish of the group, many were oblivious to the needs of real-world readers. Without being able to take the entire work in context, people could bring in chapter after chapter of lavish description (with little or no action occurring!) and get “raves” from the group. And the “logical” outcome of this would be a novel full of indulgent prose, crafted for the hardiest of the literati, not the everyday reader.
Kristen Lamb:This tenet applies in a lot of areas. We don’t need flashbacks or lengthy details of why a character thinks or acts a certain way. The more we leave to the imagination, the better.
In general, this is true, but some stories will need a certain level of context to make readers care about the characters. The opposite of the above “description” scenario could, and did, happen. Someone could, for instance, bring the group wall-to-wall action scenes and be lauded again and again, but reading their resultant Kindle novel full of wall-to-wall action (lacking any back story, character development, or any other context which would have made me care about why these characters were fighting) made it clear that the weaknesses of “writing by committee” were hardly limited to an excess of descriptions in lieu of action.
You do have to achieve balance, as well as economy. If you need to describe something, you have to. The trick is to figure out what you need to describe, and what you don’t. You have to figure this out, and not through the process of working with a critique group.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. ”~ Strunk and White (as quoted by Lamb)