How Many Words to Paint a Picture…?

Writers, editors, and agents like to talk about voice. That elusive thing that gets you published or doesn’t, that sets you apart from others. Much as people have tried, it’s a concept that’s difficult to boil down to a sentence or two.

One of the aspects of voice is how you write descriptions. This is one of the unique fingerprints of your writing that makes it possible for people to tell you apart from another writer. It’s part of your unique gift for storytelling.

Honestly? Descriptions are hard to get just right. If only we could attach pictures to our stories. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, really, having a nice photo or rendering of what we pictured every hundred pages or so in order to assure ourselves that our readers got it, that the scene we so carefully tried to describe was fully absorbed by them, no room for communication errors. Unfortunately (or maybe not. Haha), the picture thing isn’t an option, so we have to keep practicing using our words to create a picture in our readers’ minds that bears some resemblance to what we were seeing when we wrote it.

Mucho Lake

How would you describe this picture? Are you a writer who would write long paragraphs about the blues and greens? Would you make an effort to explain the way the road curves around the lake, without so much as a guardrail? Would you try to capture the wilderness feeling of the picture? Write about the trees? Or would you just tell your reader that it’s a mountain lake straight out of a fairy-tale and leave them to fill in the blanks?

If everyone reading this post wrote about the scene above, even if we set strict limits on the number of words you could use, every single example would be different. Every. Single. One.

Here’s what I do think writers need to know…there are generalizations about readers’ preferences that are true. And while writing isn’t all about some set of imaginary “rules,” reader preferences are things to pay attention to if you ever want to have readers (or if you want more readers). If you’re a Hemingway-esque describer and you think less is more…readers of historicals might feel like you’ve robbed them of one of their favorite parts of the story. If you describe the interior of a house and take several pages to do so in a suspense novel…you’ve lost that target reader (you know, unless there’s blood on the furniture or something, but still…).

Use your words to help us feel part of the setting, to help us see it. But use them appropriately for your genre. Also use the words you enjoy reading. Do you skim long description paragraphs? Are they your favorite part? Or are you somewhere in between? How you answer those questions should have some bearing on how you write.

Know your reader.

Know yourself.

And make your setting come alive with your words in the unique way that is yours alone.