A professor of mine in college, Dr. Jay Paul, loved details. In every class, he expounded on the fabulousness of details. Let me be clear, here: it wasn’t the quantity of the details, but rather the quality.
The detail sword is, as with many fabulous writing tools, double-edged. Too many details, and you lose your audience. Too few, and no one knows what you’re talking about and you lose your audience. So, channel your inner poet and write just the correct amount of detail—which is, granted, sometimes difficult.
Stephen King is one for sparse details. He’s got a knack for describing things in as few words as possible. J.K. Rowling is also good with details, although she is a bit more liberal in spreading them around.
Robert Jordan, on the other hand, is a tad verbose. Now, that doesn’t make his writing bad–just a little hard to get through. Especially if your mother gives you the 9th book of what was then a 10 book series, and you’re confused about characters and then have to start way back at the beginning, and now you’re bored because it took so long for the last book to come out you forgot– Sorry. That right there is too much detail. And that last is not Mommy’s fault. I bet I lost you in that last paragraph, right? I started a stream-of-consciousness digression that was too detailed, and unrelated to what we had been discussing. Avoid that.
Unless you make it into a teaching tool, like I just did. Then it’s cool.
As for too little detail, do I really need an example? Okay. I’ll describe a fly, but pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
It has wings and it buzzes! It likes food!
That could be so many things, like every variety of insect known to man. Or, mutant magically animated jet-planes. It leaves you confused and questioning, right?
(No? Well, just go with it!)
Let’s review. Too much detail = absent reader. Too little detail = confused, absent reader.
When you’re adding detail, try to convey as much in the detail as possible. Remember, channel your inner poet. If you’re talking about a battle scene where a man was just disemboweled, be less objective and more creative. Attempt to not only describe losing one’s entrails to a foe, but also the horror and surprise of the whole ordeal, all at once, and concisely. It is possible, I promise.
And now, some examples of detail from other sources, because I’m more or less incapable of coming up with anything good on the spot:
“She took the sheath in one hand and the handle in the other, withdrew a milk-white blade, held it up. The blade seemed to shine and glitter with a light of its own.”
–Dune, Frank Herbert: describing the crysknife.
“The troll stopped next to a doorway and peered inside. It waggled its long ears, making up its tiny mind, then slouched slowly into the room.”
–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling.
“Rain hissed gently in the garden beyond. Frogs croaked from the pools and the marshland. The women breathed deeply in sleep. I smelled the scent of flowers, the cypress wood of the bathhouse, the acrid stench from the privies. I floated across the floor as weightless as a ghost.”
–Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn.