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Little things have meaning. I recently had a birthday, and I got some pretty great gifts. It got me thinking about descriptions, how the right one can be just as perfect for a reader as the family heirloom I got from my grandmother was for me. Or like how each one can be like a delicious little cake (I didn’t have any stock images of presents, I had pictures of cake. It probably says something about me that I deliberately chose to store such a picture on my computer.)

Now I get to make a metaphor!

  • There are some details that sweep (money, gift cards, always welcome)
  • Some things that don’t quite work (gifts we put in our closets or give away)
  • Some things that are pretty good but unspecific (gifts you technically asked for but find out you don’t need or it’s not quite what you wanted)
  • Some things that have meaning (something the person gave you that is perfect because they know you)
  • And some things that create their own meaning and push the story forward (the things you didn’t think you wanted but becomes something you can’t do without)

I actually think that all of these have a place in good writing. (Kind of. Some of them are more stretching.) There are moments when sweeping, generalized details let us move on the parts of the story with more to offer, and same with the unspecific. And sometimes the little details that don’t quite mesh can help the reader notice important imagery.

The last two are the best, though, because in writing even the longest epic, every word counts. Each description has to be tailored and each word chosen with care to be perfect for the moment it’s in. Sometimes the perfect word is a little boring, but sometimes it creates the perfect moment in the book. And sometimes a description takes on a life of its own and inspires an aspect of a story you hadn’t even imagined.

Descriptions are (kind of) gifts the writer gives to the reader, those little details that help them create their own vision of the world, that make it more vivid. The more carefully chosen those gifts, the more use and enjoyment the recipient gets out of it.

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