Friday, July 31, 2015

The Art of Word-Painting, Part One

Photo by SuperFantastic, via Flickr
We’ve all heard the phrase “taking a plunge”. It metaphorically denotes an action tantamount to falling/jumping off a cliff into deep water. The person who “takes a plunge” (voluntarily or involuntarily) ends up completely immersed (if only temporarily) in a new environment.

Reading a book involves “taking a plunge” into the world the author has created. If you’re the author of the book, you want your reader to become immersed in your story asap. This holds true, regardless of genre. Whether you’re writing a crime thriller, a fantasy epic, or a piece of literary fiction, it’s important that you should give the reader a strong sense of place and time and atmosphere.

Which brings us to the issue of descriptive technique. For your first draft, it’s perfectly fine simply to write whatever first pops into your head. For your next draft, however, you owe it to yourself to review your diction (word choice), figurative language (metaphors, similes, etc.) and selective sensory and/or concrete detailing.

This month, let’s focus on Diction.

Diction covers the choices you make with regard to individual nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs. In the case of nouns, as a general rule of thumb, the more concrete and specific your choice of noun, the more evocative your description will be. By a similar token, if you choose a noun with vivid connotations (good or bad), you often can (and should!) dispense with a supporting adjective.

Take for example a sentence like My aunt drives a rusty old car. “Car” is virtually non-descript; it could apply to any automobile of any make or model. The only thing that sets it apart from other automobiles is the fact that it’s “old” and “rusty” (which again isn’t much to go on). When it comes to revision, ask yourself, “Is there a single noun I could use that would convey the same impression more vividly and concisely?” Options would include alternatives like My aunt drives a rust-bucketor My aunt drives an Edsel.1 It’s always a Good Thing if you can make one word do the work of two or three.

A similar rule holds true when it comes to verbs and adverbs. When you’re revising, be on the look-out for adverbial phrases like “She ran quickly to the window” or “The taxi turned crazily around the corner”. Get rid of the adverbs (quickly, crazily) and find more evocative verb substitutes: “She darted to the window”; “The taxi careened around the corner.” Once again, choosing a single verb over a verb phrase conveys a more vivid impression.

Making revisions like these will not only liven up your writing, but also sharpen things up when it comes to pacing.

1 British readers, substitute Reliant Robin.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. As a reader, I am always on the lookout for a "total immersion" experience. I want a writer to pull me into the story world and not let go until the last page. Sadly, it doesn't happen as often as I'd like.

  2. I was very deeply intrigued by this post.

  3. Strong word choices colour everything. Thanks for the reminder, Debbie!

  4. Excellent post, Debby! For 5 years I worked with hundreds of school children to improve their writing skills. My motto became this: Paint word pictures! I explained that their pencil (or pen or computer) was their brush, and their paper or monitor was their canvas. I talked color, sound, smell, taste, feel...and some of them actually listened. Using the tools available in our language is too often ignored as we instead choose adverbs to enhance action and an abundance of adjectives rather than our senses to depict scenes. Don't get me wrong -- both adjectives and adverbs have a place in our writing; they just shouldn't dominate it.


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