First, I will start with a couple of tips, then as this chapter goes on, you will read in more ‘detail’ (haha, get it?) about description. What to avoid, what to emphasize, etc…
Six Quick Tips for Writing Descriptions:
1. Close your eyes and try to recreate the image in your head.
2. Remember that people have five senses. Don’t just rely on visual description.
3. Adjectives should describe, not evaluate. Describing skin as smooth or tan is better than describing is as pretty or perfect.
4. Don’t over-describe things. A description should enhance the story, not drag it to a stop.
5. Don’t describe things that do not matter. If you spend a paragraph discussing the minor character’s mustache-grooming ritual, it had better be damn important to your story.
6. Draw your descriptions from real-life emotions. Or what you would think they would feel like :)
Description is something that gets in the way of many authors. Why? Well, because it's so darn hard to write. And no wonder. If you're not careful, descriptive sequences can become static, even dull. Writing action and dialogue is so much more fun. On top of that, description incorporates so many elements. It doesn't just cover describing the setting -- it also involves descriptions of the characters' clothes and appearance, the "props" your characters use, the weather, and so forth.
If you're not very accomplished at writing description, then sometimes you might want to avoid writing it. But then, you can wind up with stories where people wander vague hallways or buildings, and readers don't get a sense of time or place from your story. A story without enough description is missing something. People who read a story that's lacking in description might ask "Where does this take place? Are there buildings around them?" I must admit that often happens when people look at my early drafts.
At the same time, some writers err in the other direction, including too much description. They fall in love with their setting and can't help tell the readers about it. And tell and tell. This can impede the flow of the narrative. Imagine readers skimming your book in the store. If they see pages and pages describing the castle grounds, or the chic hotel, they will probably put it down and pick up someone else's book instead.
How bad is bad description? Think of bad description as being like that teacher who droned on and on and put the class to sleep. Good description is more like the teacher who got students involved by using anecdotes and making the class interactive. You don't want the descriptive passages in your story to put your readers to sleep, do you?
Avoid Huge Lumps of Description
In the past, authors could get away with including long, detailed descriptions in their stories. There's an infamous anecdote about a penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire. The author couldn't decide what happened in the next installment, so he interrupted the story to send all his characters off to the park or the zoo. The story picked up again in the next installment. This problem wasn't limited to the penny dreadful. Many famous novels of this period came to a complete stop while the author described something (such as a cityscape, a history, or even an entire profession) for a chapter or two.
Unless they're seeking out writers known for lyrical descriptive passages, today's readers wouldn't put up with that sort of thing. They don't want to sit and read several pages about a park outing that had nothing to do with the story, or about the workings of the fireplace in a Medieval castle. They have better things to do with their time -- and they want to read a story, not a travelogue.
Of course there are authors who, even in today's marketplace, can get away with pages and pages of description. Even genre writers. (John Crowley is a great example in the SF/fantasy field.) Those writers get away with it only because they're really, really good. Either their writing is lyrical, or it's witty, or it's somehow so enthralling that people don't care that the book has ground to a halt. However, not all readers will put up with this, even if the writing is that terrific. Also, it's worth noting that there are many published writers who rhapsodize on everything from history to their characters' politics for long passages without being lyrical about it. In these case, the reality is that even the fans know to skim those passages.