"Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively," Rebecca McClanahan

Pros: More useful information than you could believe possible!
Cons: None whatsoever
Rating: 6 out of 5

First published 7/29/2002

I bought “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively,” by Rebecca McClanahan, as one of my free “bonus points” books from the Writer’s Digest Book Club. This is how I get all the writing books that sound intriguing yet don’t quite convince me. How much information could you put into a book on description? Who on earth could fill almost 250 pages with interesting and useful material on description? And how could I be sure the book wouldn’t give all the wrong suggestions? (It’s easy to do bad things with description, after all.)

As it turns out, I would have been happy to have paid full price for this one – and then some!

Description isn’t optional. The success of all fiction, and most poetry and nonfiction, depends in part on description’s image-making power.

Where to Begin?

I’m so pleased with this book that it’s tough to figure out where to start. The author talks about working description into your stories. She could have steered you in the direction of pages and pages of static description, yet she doesn’t. She could have pushed you in the direction of tired and overused techniques (having the weather too obviously match up with what’s going on in the story, for example), yet she didn’t. Ms. McClanahan happily points out pitfalls, trite and overused techniques, and things to beware of at all stages. Her exercises back this up, helping you to subvert the expected.

Atmosphere and Attitude

The author has a marvelous quirky sense of humor. Take this passage, where she attempts to explain how engrossing the “fictional dream” can be when made “real” through good description: “Books this good should carry a warning: Your quiche might burn, your child escape his playpen, the morning glory vine strangle your roses, and you’ll never know.” She also includes both amusing and touching stories from the many classes she has taught.

Ms. McClanahan has a real knack for description. You’d think that in an instructional text on the use of description there wouldn’t be many ways for her to work description into the text itself. Yet she does, and quite well at that, easily putting her guidelines into practice. It makes what could have been a very dull text into something much more entertaining and interesting to read. Sure, there are slow spots. But this book never once put me to sleep, despite the fact that it’s positively thick with text.

And oh, do I mean thick. No large margins. No space-gobbling quotes. No blank space for doing the (very helpful) exercises. No overly large font or ridiculous line-spacing. None of the traditional tricks for making writing books seem larger than they actually are; this book is every bit as thick with useful information as it looks. Ms. McClanahan is a teacher as well as a writer–she excels at communication, getting across her lessons clearly, concisely, and in a fashion easy to remember.

A writer’s job, after all, is to sweat the small stuff. Without the small stuff, no large stuff can follow.

Understanding the Senses

I thought I’d learned about description already. I was wrong. There are so many elements to it that teachers never cover, and you’ll find pretty much all of them in this book! The book opens with a discussion of what description is and is not, what makes it effective, and what the rewards of good description are. If you believe that description is irrelevant to your particular type of writing, this chapter might convince you otherwise.

Chapter Two, The Eye of the Beholder discusses observation, imagination, memory, insight, dreams, and all of the different ways in which we acquire, find, and use details in our descriptions. I found the discussion on how imagination relates to non-fiction writing of particular interest.

Chapter Three: From Eye to Word: The Description – There’s more to description than simply writing down what we see or imagine. How will you organize details? How can you make a description of a static item active? Why is naming so crucial? We learn how details can make our imaginary places authentic and real to the reader.

Since the word is our only tool, we cannot afford to be imprecise, to say knife when we mean scalpel; fictional blood might be shed.

Chapter Four: The Nose and Mouth and Hand and Ear of the Beholder – As most writers know, it’s important to use sensory details other than just the visual. Here you’ll find pages and pages on each sense, including descriptive passages from various authors’ works. When sound is discussed, we don’t just learn how to use sounds, but how to use the way our words sound to reinforce our images.

Constellations of Images

Chapter Five: Figuratively Speaking: a “Perception of Resemblances” covers the use of metaphor in fascinating detail. The author discusses ways in which you can learn to see the resemblances between things. She talks about metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, animism, paradox, metonymy, synecdoche, analogy, allegory, conceit, and symbols. Not just the facts of them, but how they work within the wider world of writing. You’ll find out how to allow metaphors to emerge naturally, how to find “your personal constellation of images,” how to avoid the pitfalls of metaphor, and more.

Unexpected Topics

Chapter Six: Bringing Characters to Life Through Description – Description is one way to get across what a character is like without resorting to exposition. Ever wondered how you can describe your characters without using the dreaded “all-points bulletin” or resorting to the over-used mirror trick? You’ll find plenty of answers here.

Chapter Seven: The Eye of the Teller: How Point of View Affects Description covers the pros and cons (and pitfalls!) of using various types of point of view–and does it incredibly well. Ms. McClanahan discusses the use of description to help the reader settle into the point of view, how p.o.v. affects description, and even point-of-view description as an organizing device!

Chapter Eight: The Story Takes Its Place: Descriptions of Setting covers the where and when of story – “Setting grounds us, literally, in the fictional dream.” Ms. McClanahan discusses sense of place, the challenges and rewards of using real-life places as settings, and the importance of realistic detail in nonrealistic stories. She also covers the introduction and organization of setting descriptions, the use of historical settings, the combination of description with narration and exposition, and more. Description is not somehow separate from the other elements of our writing – it is a part of them.

Chapter Nine: Plot and Pace: How Description Shapes the Narrative Line – Modulating pace, the special challenges of flashbacks, using scattered details to unify the plot, withholding descriptive details to increase tension… this is great stuff here!

Chapter Ten: The Big Picture covers the complexities of atmosphere, mood, motif, feeling, theme, and tone – those “forces that reside above and below our story’s surface.” The advice in this chapter is solid and helpful. It would have been too easy for a chapter on such issues to become as large and abstract as its subject, to devolve into literary grandiosity, yet it doesn’t.

The Big Picture of “Word Painting”

I cannot recommend this book enough. It covers most of the issues that lie at the heart and soul of story, and it covers them with style, grace, and a sincere desire to help you, the reader, write better. I found so much of significant value in this book that I had to go back over this review and slice out whole listings of content (twice!) in order to make the length halfway-reasonable (and frankly it’s still too long).

Whether you write fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, this book can make your writing sing. Already I can spot the problems in those stories I was having trouble selling, and now I have an idea how to fix them. I have a better notion of where my weaknesses as a writer lie, and how I might turn them into strengths. And that’s some of the highest praise I can give to a writing book.

Writing is not about endings. Writing is about how nothing is ever lost.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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