It's funny how writing is all about describing things, yet description is something that can really kill a story if handled poorly. It's also one of those things that we tend to do a lot of in a first draft as we figure out the story for ourselves. Trouble is, once it's there, it's hard to get rid of it. If you're tweaking your descriptive passages, there are several things you can think about to help you decide what stays and what goes.
1. Who's doing the looking
Point of view (POV) is your best tool for figuring out how to edit description. Think about who your POV is in the scene and what their emotional state, personality, and goals are. Someone waxing philosophical after a profound experience will probably see the garden courtyard a lot differently than someone running through it with zombies on their tail. One would notice the beauty, the poetry, the fragility, while the other would notice the potential weapons, exits, and ambush spots. Is your POV describing things the same no matter what they're feeling or doing, or are they seeing what matters to them at that point in time?
2. What they're looking at
What gets noticed tells a lot about the person noticing. This can be tough if you need to slip in a clue and it's something your POV would never pick up on. But there are ways you can have them notice it that fits within their personality. It's also a great opportunity for characters to misunderstand something important. I read a lovely detail in Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire where a simple glance at a watch meant a lot to me (and then started me looking for more clues), but the narrator wasn't at the point yet to catch the significance. Is your POV noticing the same types of things all the time, or do they see what they feel is important in that scene?
3. Why they're looking at it
People don't usually notice everything about what's around them. The things that stand out are things that catch their eye for whatever reason. Many times they're looking for something specific, which gives you opportunities to describe as they search. But be wary of taking the easy way out and letting them describe everything just so you can show it. If they're looking for a hidden trap, or a burglar, or a secret door, they'd check very different spots than someone looking for a place to put a painting, or someone looking to buy their first home. Does your POV have a reason to look around, or are they doing it just so you can tell readers what they see?
Descriptions can be just as gripping as action if you pick the right details at the right time. Use them to enhance the mood you're trying to create, even if it's just a small throwaway detail.
How do you feel about descriptions? Love them? Hate them? A little of both?
More articles on description:
Writing what you don't know: POV and description