After long years, I return to you, the readers of Fictionpress, with—more advice!
Another Way to Improve Description: Be Active
No, this has nothing to do with exercise. It also, oddly enough, has very little to do with passive tense. My advice herein, in fact, can be summarized with one sentence:
To make your description interesting, hardly ever use the verb 'to be'.
Every part of that sentence is important. First off, 'to make' tells you what you want to do, 'your' shows that it's your problem…um, sorry. I guess you already figured that part out.
'Interesting' means descriptions that won't put your reader to sleep. However, I can't promise you'll entrance them, so you still might not want to write huge blocks of description and assume that because it never useses' to be,' you're fine.
Second, 'hardly ever' means just that—not 'never' and not 'often'. There will be times when a 'was' or 'is' makes your description clearer, less wordy, or just fit with the tone of your scene (the latter excuse is also a good reason to use passive tense).
'To be'—am, are, is, was, were. Those are the words you want to look out for. Don't completely eradicate them, just look out for them.
That's All Very Well and Good in Practice, but How Does It Work in Theory?
And now I show you roughly the same description in three ways, having as much fun with each way as I can, until you are so utterly sick of these towers that you'll never visit Moscow or the Taj Mahal again.
The first would be from someone who didn't really care and just said it like it is. With lots of 'to be' verbs.
The towers were taller than any he had ever seen. Their tops were shaped like onions and coated with gold plating. They were beautiful.
If, like the narrator/POV provider, you really don't care, perhaps there isn't a problem. But with description like this, the odds are nobody will really care, and in that case, why bother writing the description at all?
And now another thing to watch out for… Let's look at someone who didn't want to commit that last mistake, but dug out a thesaurus for the verbs.
The gilded, round-capped towers soared into the clouds, scintillating in the blaze of the sun. What gods, he wondered, had come to Earth to create and dwell in such beauty?
Now imagine several pages of that.
Lastly, let's see somebody else (her name is Mumbling Sage) trying to walk the narrow line between purple and boring.
The golden towers rose into the sky, sunlight shining on their onion-domed tops. The Traveling Gnome looked in wonder, and wished he had thought to bring a camera with him.
Not immortal prose, perhaps, but who could hate the Traveling Gnome?
And Some Real Advertising (not for Travelocity)
So, say you're the author of that purple paragraph. What are you going to do with your vocabulary, if you can't use it to communicate with everyone else? Was all the time you spent reading the dictionary in grade school wasted?
Well, no. Firstly, you can use your understanding of florid prose to help others translate their own into something closer to English. The rest of us don't even know what they're saying to help them say it.
And secondly, you can play Free Rice. For those who haven't heard, this is an online vocabulary game with banner ads along the bottom of the screen. Each time you correctly define a word, the screen reloads with a new banner ad. The revenue from these ads goes to support world hunger efforts (by buying rice, apparently). The highest I've ever gotten was level 46 or so—on those levels, both the word to be defined and the multiple choice options defining it are hardly in English anymore, and I have to use knowledge of Latin roots from my Spanish classes to puzzle things out.
So, ready for a challenge?
Yours, happily feeding the world,
Feel free to review on the way out, especially if you want to tell me what level you reached in Free Rice. It goes up to 50.