I wish I could describe to you how amazing and wonderful it's been to get rid of two grocery bags full of paper. Paper that I'd been hanging onto for years, for no apparent reason.
You see, I have two corners of my bedroom that have paper piles in them. And it is one of my goals for this year to get rid of all of that. It overwhelms me to look at all of it, (because there's a lot) so I've been following Flylady's advice of doing it fifteen minutes at a time. So every day, I get out a pile of it and go through it for fifteen minutes. And mostly, throw it away while wondering why I kept it in the first place. I certainly didn't need it, but obviously at one time thought I might, so I held onto all that clutter.
I was thinking about how I'm actually the opposite in my reading and writing habits. I really don't like over-description and "clutter words" at all and go out of my way to avoid it, (unlike my cluttery paper room). As a former reporter, (I almost wrote reformed there, haha!) economy of words is a big deal. When you only have two inches to get the story across, you learn quickly to cut down on any flowery words and get to the point. And my books have kind of followed the same thing, but of course I've gone back to add layers and description to fill in my blanks so to speak, and overcome my habit of being too stark in my writing.
As a reader I must say when I come across over-description I roll my eyes and try to skip that part. You know what I'm talking about, things like, "The emerald green eyes crackled with anger, staring daggers over my fast-fluttering heart." First of all, can anyone tell me why characters with green eyes can't have something other than emerald eyes? (My eyes are green and I have to admit I was a teeny bit proud of that until I got told they were more of a swamp green. That humbled me.) And how can eyes crackle with anger? I think I'd freak out if someone's eyes started crackling and I witnessed it. (I imagine it sort of like the Emperor's eyes when he's got Luke on the floor and is electrocuting him with his laser stare in Return of the Jedi, maybe?) But, you get my point. It's the over-description that weighs the writing down and takes you out of the story.
As a reader, there's really nothing you can do about over-description. As a writer, however you can be on the lookout for a few telltale signs.
1. If you've used a list to describe something---you might be an over-describer. She was a fair-haired girl, a little plump, with short stubby legs, and thick-rimmed glasses. Laundry lists like that are always a sign that you are telling your stories instead of showing it. Delete and be more subtle.
2. If you have an entire page of setting description with nothing else---you might be an over-describer. Giving your reader setting details is important, but you have to sprinkle it in among your dialogue and characters. Balance is the key.
3. This one sort of goes along with the last one. If you've described everything down to the cracks in the sidewalk---you might be an over-describer. Pick and choose the details that you are describing. Your reader generally doesn't need to know every tiny thing (unless it's pertinent to the plot). I once heard the advice that everything that you include in your book, each character, each scene, each snippet of dialogue, should all be a thread in your plot, something pertinent that furthers your story. If it doesn't, then delete it.
4. If you have a lot of "ly" verbs, you might be an over-describer. "She talked angrily to her fetchingly handsome beau", "she said firmly to herself as she lovingly stroked the achingly beautiful flower," "he slammed his hand down forcefully." You get the picture.
The key to description is subtlety and pertinence. I know you've all heard it said that a novel is like a beautiful painting, the shades of light and dark, the layers of effort and realistic portrayal evident. But nothing extraneous is included, each image, each background piece adds to the enjoyment of the painting.
So, just like I'm throwing out papers that I don't need, but thought I might one day, throw out the extra stuff. You don't need it no matter how much you think you do. Don't be an over-describer. Make your words count.