Kristen Lamb

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Writing Tip #1–How Much Detail Should Writers Use?

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When it comes to writing great fiction, less is often more. Think of modifiers and detail like perfume. Perfume can be lovely, sexy, attractive, and make one irresistible. It can also give others a headache or an asthma attack and have them looking for the closest bookmark exit.


Comb through your prose and look for adverbs. When possible, replace them with stronger verbs.

She stood quickly out of the chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Look for redundant adverbs.

He yelled loudly.

Um…no, duh. How else would he yell? Softly?

Not all adverbs are evil. Adverbs are fine when they denote some quality that is not inherent in the definition of the verb.

She whispered conspiratorially.

Describing Characters

When it comes to character descriptions, you aren’t talking to a police sketch artist. Give the basics and let the reader fill in the rest. Trust your reader’s imagination to be far better than anything you can supply. Think of it this way, when your book is one day made into a movie, casting will be far easier :D.

Adjectives—Handle with Care

Like adverbs, try to use adjectives sparingly and only when they are truly going to punch up a sentence. Avoid adjectives your reader would automatically supply on her own.

It was a dark night.

Ok. Glad you told us that night was DARK. Our brain doesn’t need holding, really. We are not stupid.

It was an evil night, a night of reckoning.

Oooooh, oh. I can go with this. See how the adjectives hint at the story instead of stating the obvious?

Details Can Negatively Affect Pacing

We do need some details. Few things annoy me more than having no idea about the setting, or what people look like, but…

If we spend three paragraphs describing the weather and the setting, this gives readers a chance to see something shiny and then you are OOH! SQUIRREL!

We are in an increasingly ADD world and need to appreciate the reader of the Digital Age. Yes, use detail, but spread it throughout the story. Big chunks of detail get boring very quickly to everyone but the writer.

Imagine this scenario. You can’t wait to watch a movie. The opening scene is of a breathtaking sunrise, the most beautiful sunrise you’ve ever witnessed in the history of sunrises, but the camera just focuses on the sun rising over the mountains, and rising, and *yawn* more rising…for the next FIFTEEN minutes. You would be throwing popcorn at the screen.

Loads of detail heaped together have the same affect.

When We Modify Everything, We Modify Nothing

Too much detail/too many modifiers are like a person speaking/shouting in monotone. Remember Billy Mays, the Oxy Clean guy, and EVERYTHING WAS EQUALLY LOUD AND IMPORTANT?

When we modify everything, we modify nothing. Use detail/modifiers sparingly and purposefully so that readers can more easily enjoy why they bought your book in the first place…for the story.

Happy writing!

61 thoughts on “Writing Tip #1–How Much Detail Should Writers Use?”

  1. Natasha McNeelyNatasha McNeely

    This is a great post. You really describe when specific details and such should or shouldn’t be used in a nice, easy to understand way. Thanks for sharing!

  2. daviduferdavidufer

    I really enjoy your writing tips! Thank you!

  3. renรฉe a. schuls-jacobsonrenรฉe a. schuls-jacobson

    Yes yes yes! I spent 22 years trying to get my students to understand this. Now I am free to use it as I finish this dang book. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Rebecca EnzorRebecca Enzor

    THANK YOU! Over description annoys me to no end. Usually if there is a lot of description (Jean M Auel, anyone?) I’ll begin to skim, which means I may miss something important that’s buried in all the nonsense.

  5. Joe OwensJoe Owens

    Kristen – i can remember reading the Hound of the Baskervilles in high school and this exact explanation was given by my teacher about the lack of detail in describing the Hound. The imagination is much more powerful than a page full of words describing the beast.

  6. Susan JSusan J

    I appreciate how you demonstrate writing that delivers rich content in easily digestible bites. Always leaves me looking forward to your next post. Thanks.

    Susan Jenkins

  7. kimterrykimterry

    The one I love (meaningful clearing of throat, here): “He wore a smile on his face.” (Duh? On whatever other part of his anatomy….?)

  8. Rick SchworerRick Schworer

    “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King, “On Writing.”

  9. Kirk ToncrayKirk Toncray

    Thanks for posting that. Sometimes I drift into Nowhereville and forget the basics of fun and enjoyable story writing.

  10. David EricksonDavid Erickson

    There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. I’ve been reading Clive Cussler novels of late and he makes it a point to describe what everyone is wearing. It does help to visualize what everyone is wearing, but I don’t think it adds enough to the story to make the extra verbiage worthwhile. Still, he has millions of books in print and he tells interesting stories.

    I’ve read many, many sci-fi novels that offer extensive detail, but with sci-fi the writer, in most cases, is building a new world, society or universe.

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      I go to the dashboard and edit. Did you catch one? Every once in a while one of the little suckers slips thru :D.

  11. Heather WrightHeather Wright

    Great blog summing up this common problem. I love your tip about having the adverbs hint at the story rather than state the obvious. Wow, I am definitely going to pass that one along to my writing students!

  12. Rick SchworerRick Schworer

    I think when there are too many details in a scene, especially an action scene, it actually works against the readers imagination. A lot detail in a fight scene is like a slow motion clip, it can be nice for about 10 seconds but after that it’s boring.

    My WIP involves swordfights, some earthly and some spiritual, and so I borrowed some books from the library to see how they were described by good authors. I noticed one writer (Terry Brooks) didn’t bog down the reader with every minute detail of the swordfight, instead he threw in things surrounding the battle and let the reader imagine the fight itself. Mentioning the dirt kicking up beneath their feet, the screams of comrades, sweat and blood and blurry vision… I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t just say all that in a room full of ladies writing romance novels?

    The principle remains the same; good writing should work hand-in-hand with the readerโ€™s imagination, not against it.

  13. jeanie9648jeanie9648

    Great writing advice, as always. I look forward to your tips and advice.

  14. Rosalie AshRosalie Ash

    How true! When I recently came to re-write my 1989 version of MELTING ICE for its e-book relaunch, I had to totally re-do my characters’ wardrobes. Far too much fashion detail, which of course dates so fast. (By the way, in response to the comment by Rich Schworer, above, there are some very successful MALE writers of romance novels too!) ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. bottledworderbottledworder

    I think balancing action with detail is the key. Too much detail in long, clunky paragraphs will surely deter plot movement but too little will make the reader feel lost. Also, it’s important to discover your strengths and weaknesses as a writer–some people are superb at description, others at building action. On the whole I agree–get rid of redundant detail which is not the same as saying get rid of detail. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  16. pianutspianuts

    Great tips, once again. Thank you!

  17. PA LassiterPA Lassiter

    I’m chuckling to myself about a paraphrase I read of an Umberto Eco interview. If you’ve read (or tried to read) “Quincunx,” you’ll know how difficult it is to get through the first 100 pages. The reason, he said, is he wanted to acclimate the reader to the monastery environment, where nothing changes, everything moves slowly, and you are forced to rely on your inner resources (and God, of course). It was A) Enlightening and undoubtedly true, and B) Funny as heck to think of explaining away one’s own boring, detail-laden, first seven chapters.

    Moral of the story: Umberto Eco can get away with lots of things most other writers can’t. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • PA LassiterPA Lassiter

      Sorry, folks. That’s “Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco.

      (Love Quincunx by Charlies Palliser too, but that’s a different era.)

  18. howmyspiritsingshowmyspiritsings

    I was recently reading a book that took me three months to read because the characters literally kept stopping the action to stop and get something to eat. If the writer would have cut out those trips to McDonalds, I would have read the book much faster. Less would have definitely made a better book.

  19. RosiRosi

    I will be printing this one out and read it every time I sit down to revise. Great stuff.

  20. lythyalythya

    Nice, short post. You’re very good at giving examples.

  21. LichenLichen

    @PA Lassiter : I very much enjoyed your comment. However I went to look up the book and found that Umberto Eco didn’t write any novel with that title.

    • PA LassiterPA Lassiter

      You are SO absolutely right! Brain burp. Sorry ’bout that: “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco
      (Quincunx is by Charles Palisser, but also EPIC.)

      • LichenLichen

        Thanks so much for the reply. I thought I was nuts! LOL Yes! The Name of the Rose…one has to really love monasticism. I do, and so it didn’t seem too bad. However, I also chose to read the damn thing in French at the time – shoot me. LOL
        Thanks for the reply.

        • PA LassiterPA Lassiter

          In French! You are my hero!
          Thanks so much for catching my error. Now back to you, Kristen.

  22. lccooperlccooper

    Yes! This supports how I feel about my writing: I avoid almost all physical descriptions for my characters (including cover images) so the reader can have more ownership over the story. I choose to use action, behaviors, setting, impressions from other characters, and conversations between characters to help the reader formulate her/his own vision. Also, I use conversations to provide detail instead of relying on droning descriptive paragraphs. As such, the reader “listens in” on a conversation, which seems more appealing.

    This was timely. I came VERY close to adding a bunch o’ filler to my latest story because I got the impression that, citing a few popular romances, nauseating amounts of detail are critical to a story’s success. As I’ve said in a few other posts, I don’t give a crap if Goldilocks’ dress was made of taffeta and chicken wings that were plucked from free-range fowl. If it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the story’s direction and outcomes, fo-get about it.

  23. runoffwriterrunoffwriter

    After the ignorance I felt reading your predictions for publishing, this post makes me feel somewhat proficient! I sometimes worry about my spartan use of descriptors, but I’ve usually countered those concerns with the argument that, as you say, the reader will fill in the gaps. Thanks for validating me!

    I’ll give your exercises a try; another question I pose myself often is whether or not my stronger verbs call too much attention to themselves- like an aftershave overdose (you took perfume, so…)- and pull the reader out of the moment. Tough to find the right balance, which is, I suppose, what separates the amateur from the author. Thanks for sharing your tips and experience- glad I found my way here!

  24. Tamara LeBlancTamara LeBlanc

    It’s always good to get a quick reminder on craft. Especially when I’m revising!
    Thanks so much, Kristen.
    Have a great evening,

  25. Nigel BlackwellNigel Blackwell

    Ha ha! When you modify every thing, you better be called JK Rowling ๐Ÿ™‚


  26. alexisdelucaalexisdeluca

    It must be in the air….I was feeling this before I read you…. New Year’s Resolution #1: (seriously, my only one) USE LESS WORDS.>>>>>AND STRONGER VERBS! Now I know I’m on track…TY

    You’re the Best ๐Ÿ™‚

  27. MamaWolfMamaWolf

    “Give the basics and let the reader fill in the rest. Trust your readerโ€™s imagination to be far better than anything you can supply.”

    I was recently glancing through an old journal from a creative writing course I took in college and this was actually a criticism I had received from the instructor. I didn’t understand it at the time as I thought I was showing-not-telling, but having begun writing again (after leaving that class thinking I just shouldn’t bother and instead focusing my energy on editing and professional/technical/expository writing) i finally get it. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for the reminder. It’s a fine line to walk between bringing a story to life and beating readers over the head so they interpret it exactly as we see it.

  28. Elle Carter NealElle Carter Neal

    I think some (many) readers like to imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist, or at the very least, looking out through the protagonist’s eyes. If too much detail is given about, say, physical attributes it makes it more difficult for the reader to reconcile this very specific image with how they view themselves.

    I have the opposite problem in that I write very sparingly, especially in the first draft. I hardly describe anything because I get swept up in the dialogue and action and trying to fit in some observations of the scenery always feels contrived to me. But I write fantasy, so, really, I should have some description in there. Luckily I have beta readers to help me out with a “Huh?” or two.

  29. Megan OlsonMegan Olson

    I really appreciate how you communicated this common writing error… I am revising my manuscript (again x 29747) and am discovering how dedicated I am to my adverbs. yikes. thanks for the advice!

  30. SweetSongSweetSong

    Stephen King goes on and on about slaughtering adverbs (almost to the extreme of ALL adverbs) but I agree with yours more – there’s a place for them. Not to say that I don’t still overuse them just a little bit… but it’s just a little bit. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  31. KM HuberKM Huber

    Your post reminds of the Strunk and White statement: “omit needless words.” While it is no exaggeration to say I have remembered that sentence for more than thirty years, it would be an outright lie if I said I practiced such restraint. However, I am the forever optimist.

    Once again, you provide us a succinct essay with examples that rival Strunk and White. Brava, Kristen!


  32. Elisa NuckleElisa Nuckle

    These are great pointers for me, as I like to use pointless descriptive adjectives. Good thing about writing? Revising and editing various tidbits like the stuff you mention is doable. ๐Ÿ˜€

  33. Karen LangeKaren Lange

    Great tips, thanks so much! Sharing this link in an upcoming post.

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