Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively


Let Rebecca McClanahan guide you through an inspiring examination of description in its many forms. With her thoughtful instruction and engaging exercises, you'll learn to develop your senses and powers of observation to uncover the rich, evocative words that accurately portray your mind's images. McClanahan includes dozens of descriptive passages written by master poets and authors to illuminate the process. She also teaches you how to weave writing together using description as a unifying thread.


When the editors of Writer’s Digest Books approached me about writing a book on description, I responded the way I respond to all new challenges: Yes. No. Well, I’ll think about it. Yes is the child in me, taking my seat on the roller coaster that will whiplash me into the tunnel, up the rickety mountain, around the next exhilarating loop. No is the adult, walking away from the ticket booth: What if the car derails? Who’s driving this train, anyway? Does my insurance cover roller coasters? Most writers, I suspect, hear both these voices, often simultaneously, each time they put pen to paper. And I suspect that every book is a duet of opposing voices attempting some semblance of harmony.

Finally, I’ll think about it won out. When I thought about it, I realized I was being offered the chance to combine three of my primary passions: writing, reading, and teaching.

As a writer, I know the daily struggle of describing the world around me and the world that dwells only in my head; my recycling bin holds evidence of that struggle. I also know the occasional click of the lock, the satisfaction of words slipping into place, and those few unspoiled seconds when the images in the developing tray coalesce. Yes, there’s the barn in all its rotting splendor. There’s the lumpy boy slicking back his cowlick and approaching the long-legged girl.

As a reader, I know which descriptions move me to laughter, terror or unwept tears. I can point to those I wish I had written. Wait, I say, running alongside you with a book in my hand: Listen to this one. You’ve got to hear this!

And as a teacher, I’ve sat up nights—for nearly thirty years now—charting paths to lead my students from there to here, and back again. It’s one thing to recognize an effective description; quite another, to guide someone to write one.

Since Word Painting grew from these three passions, it combines direct instruction with personal reflections on the reading and writing process. I set forth basic guidelines for effective description and suggest specific writing exercises. (Some exercises are embedded within the text; others appear at chapter ends.) Along the way, I point out some of my favorite descriptive passages from novels, stories, essays and poems, suggesting ways to use these passages as models for our own writing. And occasionally I take you behind the scenes of this writer’s ongoing journey to describe what she sees, hears, tastes, smells, touches and imagines.

The book is organized around three main concepts: eye, word and story. After establishing what we mean by description and summarizing the elements of effective description, I move directly into a discussion of the writer as the beholding eye— and, in turn, the beholding ear, mouth, nose and hand. Like painters, writers are the receptors of sensations from the real world and the world of the imagination, and effective description demands that we sharpen our instruments of perception. So in the first few chapters, I suggest practical ways to increase our attention to the real world: note-taking, journal-writing, sketching, research, eye-search and I-search. I also discuss techniques for engaging the eye of the imagination and discovering what the inner eye sees.

As I move from . . .

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