Some interesting links on the subject:
I do, however, believe in understanding the problems which the rules of writing aim to remedy. Once an author understands those problems then (s)he may pick and choose when to flirt with danger. Or choose not to flirt with danger. But the understanding is key, because it puts another element of writing under the author's control.
Description is no different. If your story is a raft floating down the plot of a river, then description is everything else in the river. It's the unexpected eagle sighting that adds wonder to the story. It's the glacier melt sediment that can be heard as it flows against the rubber of the raft and makes the story seem more real. It's the boulder in the river that diverts the plot and creates places for side-stories in the back-eddies.
The problem is the raft trip will be slow when the river is jam-packed with eagles, floating debris, and boulders. If you've ever been kayaking and have become stuck on a sandbar, then you know how quickly frustration will mount when the trip isn't moving forward.
So how should we endeavor to describe?
A random example from LotR:
"It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night. They were very weary. The mountains were veiled in deepening dusk, and the wind was cold. Gandalf spared them one more mouthful each of the miruvor of Rivendell. When they had eaten some food he called a council."
As many of the articles above suggest, Tolkien mixes description with action. Looking at each sentence individually we see:
- It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night. Description and Action
- They were very weary. Description
- The mountains were veiled in deepening dusk, and the wind was cold. Description
- Gandalf spared them one more mouthful each of the miruvor of Rivendell. Action
- When they had eaten some food he called a council. Action
When description is deftly mixed into action it adds interest without stealing attention. A river runs in riffles when it flows over many submerged stones. The riffles add a new dimension to the flow without changing the course of the whole river. That seems like a good goal for the bulk of a story's descriptions.
The other thing we might learn from the good professor's paragraph is that his sentences are not overly complex. Each simply carries a thought.
He doesn't over-do his descriptions even though he is capable of writing stunning scene descriptions. He chooses to embellish just one thought with flowery language: "veiled in deepening dusk".
Simplicity appears to be an important component of mixing action with description. Let the description get too long or too complex and those submerged stones start poking out of the river and the story has to navigate around them.
Against a background of simple descriptions mixed with action, the occasional embellished description becomes exciting rather than tiring.
Of course there will be exceptions. The art of writing is in applying these lessons to a story in the appropriate way for that particular story.
In novel news, I have just completed a reading of part 1 of Blind Guardian while focusing on description alone. Unsurprisingly, it resulted in significant changes to the story. I am happier with it now, but not yet satisfied. Onward.
Good luck wrestling with the art of description in your own writing.