It’s time for another crash course in economy of language! This sort of touches on vagueness, which we talked about last time, but I made it a separate post just to break things up a bit. Let’s talk about how you can be more economical with your descriptions.
The problem with puffy descriptions
When a writer crams too much information into a paragraph, it can be hard for readers to figure out which details are important. This makes the paragraph seem vague because there’s no focal point. It also makes your story harder to read because it’s more difficult to keep track of what’s going on.
You might need a critique partner
Sometimes it takes a second pair of eyes to spot unnecessary material in your book, so don’t feel bad if you read over a scene and can’t find anything to cut. It happens to us all.
However, you can learn to analyze your writing, and that might help you eliminate vague or repetitive descriptions. I don’t think I can show you how to do that in a single blog post, but this is one part of the process. It’s another aspect of micro editing, and I hope it helps you learn how to structure your descriptions in a way that adds substance to your story.
Here’s a rough scene:
Victoria was walking to the company store. She needed to buy salt pork, beans, eggs, lard, and flour. She also needed milk for her daughter and some potatoes for dinner. The sky was blue and birds were singing overhead. Cicadas were buzzing in the trees. Horses were clip-clopping down the dusty street. A pair of men stumbled out of the saloon, laughing and leaning on one another as they staggered off into the distance. Victoria sighed in relief when they didn’t seem to notice her at all. She didn’t have time to deal with men.
Victoria noticed that the boarding house was buzzing with people getting ready for shift change. She saw women who were wrangling children and laundry. She also saw men who were walking toward the mines, some tired, some with purpose. No one was waiting at the train station; the next train wasn’t due until morning. When Victoria came around the corner, she saw a crowd gathered on one side of the street.Word count: 166
This is just a bunch of sentences grouped together. Although the writer is trying to set a scene, there’s no emotional tone, no real direction, and no clear narrative voice. A lot happens in the paragraph, but the writing isn’t economical because it doesn’t go anywhere or give the reader anything to care about. If we want to get really picky, the sentences are choppy and there are too many passive phrases. Let’s concentrate on how to make this little scene more economical first. We can fix the minor details later if there are any left after we revise.
Think about what needs to happen in the scene, and try to keep that goal in mind while you rewrite.
In this case, Victoria does have a purpose: she’s getting groceries. There’s also a hint that someone might be blocking her from getting to the store. I can use that to give this paragraph some direction. I’ll ease off on information we don’t need–like the individual items on Victoria’s shopping list, the weather, and the sounds of nature–so it’s easier for readers to follow the story. Finally, I’ll do what I can to insert a bit of tension to help draw readers deeper into the story.
Victoria’s shoes stirred up puffs of dust on the plank sidewalk as she hurried to the company store, her shopping list clutched in her fist. The saloon doors creaked open into her path and a pair of men stepped out, flushed and laughing, their faces still bright and clear of the black dust that would eventually settle deep into every crease and pore.
Victoria ducked her head, hiding under her bonnet, and prayed neither of them noticed her. She couldn’t afford the time it would take to talk her way out of an awkward situation. Luckily, the men stumbled into the street, heading toward Mrs. Smith’s boarding house. Victoria pressed on. Amelia will be so frightened if I don’t get home before she wakes up from her nap, she thought, rushing around the corner.
Coal-blackened miners in coveralls and hard hats blocked the entrance of the company store. Victoria stopped short in the middle of the sidewalk. Another protest. Her shoulders drooped.Word Count: 162
Let’s analyze the descriptions in Example 2
This isn’t much shorter than the original example. However, it feels more like a story, doesn’t it? Instead of random descriptions of the weather and the birds and everything Victoria wants from the store, we get something that feels more like a journey.
First off, Victoria has a goal. She wants to finish her shopping quickly and get home to her daughter. I won’t have to do much more to make readers start wanting that for her. I didn’t include many setting details because I’m imagining Victoria is so focused on her goal that she didn’t notice the weather or birds. The details I did use, like the plank sidewalk, will hopefully help readers imagine a 19th century coal town.
Second, we get a little bit of Victoria’s personality. She seems shy, or maybe a little anxious, right? It’s possible she’s had some experiences with drunks coming out of the saloon before and is concerned about what might happen. She’s also worried about her daughter.
Finally, there’s conflict. Victoria’s a woman on a mission and someone–in this case a whole crowd–is in her way. Not only that, but it sounds like these protests are part of an ongoing problem. It’s a personal conflict in this particular scene, but it’s also an indicator of a larger conflict that will draw more characters in before the story reaches its climax. The two men coming out of the tavern are also indicative of a possible problem–they’re newcomers, which you can see because their skin isn’t totally embedded with coal dust, and could be scabs or actors who were brought in to break up a union. (Or possibly minions of some Eldritch terror imprisoned deep within the earth, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Even though it’s longer, example 2 is more economical because it has more substance.
If I had kept up with the same writing style I used in the first example, how long would it have taken before the story felt like it was moving? How long before we got a good feel for Victoria’s character? Before tension and conflict started to build? Probably a while, right? We did lose a few small details in the second example, but we gained some real substance.
As strange as it might sound, economy of language doesn’t always mean writing shorter. It means getting the most out of every word you use, and avoiding anything that doesn’t contribute to the scene you’re building. In this case, I’m still setting up the story. Introductions and early world building scenes tend to run a little long, but you can ease back on some of those descriptions once you’ve established your setting.
You also have to keep conflict and tension in mind when you write descriptions
It’s hard to create good tension in a story when you’re using vague language and empty descriptions. You’ve got to give your readers expectations. They have to want things to happen, and you have to make it seem like maybe those things won’t happen, in order to have tension in your story. Using specific language and descriptions that make meaningful contributions to your scene will help create those expectations in your readers.
Which example do you prefer?
I’ve said it often enough that I should probably get t-shirts printed: Writing is subjective. Everyone has different tastes. Not only that, but some readers just don’t notice subtle details in writing. Even though economy of language is important to me, it doesn’t matter at all to other people out there. So don’t stress too much if you’re having trouble grasping the concept. Do the best you can and write what makes you happy.
If you have any questions about writing descriptions, or anything you’d like to add, feel free to leave a comment below. I do have more economy of language posts planned, as well as a whole host of other things, so please subscribe if you’d like to receive weekly updates when new things get published to the blog.