Word Painting – How to Write Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan

“If I were fully conscious of my surroundings at this moment, I would describe the light through the window, the way it searches out the apples in the glass bowl, buffing them to an unnatural sheen. I bought them for their fragrance, not their freshness, so even if you were to close your eyes, you’d know you were in the presence of apples. You would smell the heavy softening, the sweet rotting where apple ends and cider begins.

“Or I would tell you how the sofa cushion feels beneath my bare neck–rough and scratchy, a bit lumpy. . . .

“If you were sitting in the chair beside me, you’d probably notice the sounds filling the open windows–the pneumatic wheeze as a bu rounds the corner, a jay’s raspy squawk….

The place I’ve entered is what John Gardener in his classic book The Art of Fiction calls the fictional dream. Because the[pg. 4]  writer has done her job, the world of the book I am reading has become, for the moment at least, more real than the world at my elbow. Books this good should carry a warning: Your quiche might burn, your child might escape his playpen, the morning glory vine might strangle your roses, and you’ll never know.” ”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pgs. 4 – 5

“Fiction writers aren’t the only ones who create this dream. Poets do it, too, and essayists and memoirists and biographers and travel writers and nature writers and journalists and letter writers. Even, at time business writers and those who draft advertising copy–once I nearly drowned in a catalog description of a blue gauze dress. Diarists, perhaps because they are freed from the demands of audience, create some of the most memorable dreams. My great-aunt Bessie’s diary of 1897 is filled with vivid pages:

‘This morning everything was ridged with frost, the sky cloudless except for a few fiery ones in the east and the sun shining of the frost-beauty.
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pg. 5.

“Description is not, as one of my students once called, ‘all the flowery stuff.’  Or, if description is the flowering, it is also the root and stem of effective writing.” ― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pg. 6.


“Perhaps the best way to fully define description is by considering what it is not:

  • Description is not, as we’ve already pointed out, ‘all the flowery stuff.’ It isn’t mere embellishment, something we stitch to the top of our writing to make it more presentable.
  • Description isn’t optional. The success of all fiction, and most poetry and nonfiction, depends in part on description’s image-making power.
  • Description doesn’t aways mean detailing how something looks. . . .
  • Description doesn’t begin on the page. It begins in the eye and ear and mouth and nose and hand of the beholder. To write good description, we must look long, hard and honestly at our world. Careful and imaginative observation may well be the most essential task of any writer.
  • Writing descriptively doesn’t always mean writing gracefully.  … Some descriptions demand uneven syntax and plainspoken, blunt prose. Jagged, even. Fragment, too. Slice of chin. Buzz saw.
  • Description doesn’t always require a bigger vocabulary. House is probably a better choice than domicile, a horse is easier to imagine than an equine mammal, and red blood is brighter than the sanguine flow of bodily fluids.
  • Description doesn’t necessitate writing more. Description isn’t a steroid, something to make or language bigger and stronger, nor is it an additive promising more miles to the fictional gallon. Sometimes writing descriptively means writing less. Our three-hundred-word description of the wedding cake might need to lose two hundred words; it may need to disappear altogether.
  • Description rarely stands alone. Most description exists as part of a larger poem, essay or story, seamlessly intertwined with other literary elements.  Description isn’t something we simply insert…. Yes, sometimes we write passages of description. But the term passage suggests a channel, a movement from one place to another; it implies that we’re going somewhere. That somewhere is the story.”― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pgs. 7-8.


“Description begins in the beholder’s eye and it requires attention. If we look closely enough and stay in the moment long enough, we may be granted new eyes. Or ears. On his album Noel, PaulStookey (of the Peter, Paul and Mary trio} talks about his process of writing songs. ‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘if you sit in one place long enough, you get used. You become the instrument for what it is that wants to be said.’” ― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pgs. 14.

[David Foster said almost the same thing about writing his lyrics for the song The Prayer:]

“In the meantime, read the best literature you can find, particularly literature rich in detail, so you’ll be able to recognize an effective description when one appears in your work. I say when, not if, for the comet will appear. The universe is stacked in favor of possibility. If we are patient enough, if we don’t force the process but rather remain open to discovery, one day, probably when we least expect it, a comet will show itself. We’ll know it by its earthborne dust, its solid head and the fiery tail that ignites the sky in front of our eyes.” ― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, pgs. 15.


“Good description begins with observation. …

“Look at what Aude Lorde does with two ordinary household objects, the mortar and pestle her mother used for grinding spices:

‘The mortar was of a foreign fragrant wood, too dark for cherry and too red for walnut. To my child eyes, the outside was carved in an intricate  and most enticing manner. There were rounded plums and oval indeterminate fruit, some long and fluted like a banana, others ovular and end-swollen like a ripe alligator pear. In between there were smaller rounded shapes like cherries, lying in batches against and around each other . . .

‘The pestle was long and tapering, fashioned from the same mysterious rose-deep wood, and fitted into the hand almost casually, familiarly. The shape reminded me of a summer crook-necked squash uncurled and slightly twisted…. Long use and years of impact and grinding with the bow’s worn hollow had softened the very surface of the wooden pestle, until a thin layer of split fibers coated the rounded end like a layer of velvet. A layer of the same velvety mashed wood lined the bottom inside the sloping bowl. ― from Zami: A New Spelling of M Name

“To train your naked eye to see more intently, try this exercise in observation. … Place the object in the center of a bear table; if the object is too large or heavy to move, station yourself in front of it.

“Set a timer for ten minutes and don’t move until the time is up. During these ten minutes, your only job is to study the object. Stare at it. Notice every detail-its color, shape, each part that contributes to the whole. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted from the task at hand. If a memory floats to the surface, something you associate with the object, try to bring yourself back to your physical examination of the object. (There will be time for memories later.)For now, focus all your attention on the object itself. You might wish to pick it up, turn it around or upside-down. Notice its heft, its texture. How does it feel in your hand, against your face? How does it smell?

“When the timer goes off, begin writing a description of the object. Report what your eyes have seen and your hands have felt. Use sensory details that the reader will be able to imagine―colors, shapes, smells, textures. Concrete nouns will anchor your description. Use only those adjectives that call for the qualities of the object; avoid adjectives that label or explain. Words like lovely, old wonderful, noteworthy or remarkable are explanatory labels; they do not suggest sense impressions. Adjectives like bug-eyed, curly, bumpy, frayed, or moss-covered, on the other ad, are descriptive. Although Lorde’s description contains some labeling adjectives (intricate, enticing), most of her details are sensory and concrete, allowing us to experience the mortar and pestle as physical objects rather than as disembodied ideas.” ― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, pgs. 14-17.

“The naked eye provides us with sensory, concrete experiences. The imaginative eye opens up other worlds.”                 ― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, pg. 17.


“We can fill hundreds of notebooks with precise, accurate, realistic depictions of objects people, and events without once writing an authentic description. Effective description occurs only when the naked eye merges with the imaginative eye. As Eudora Welty phrased it ‘fiction’s whole world is human nature. . . . But the imagination is the only thing that can find out anything about it and the only way you can see.’”― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, pgs. 17-18.


“Memory is an act of meaning-making. It collects the disparate pieces of our lives and distills them. For writers what we forget is as important as what we recall. …

“Life continually] provides us wth raw material for our writing. Henry James call this material― the fact, eventor memory that is given to us― the “donnée.” But the donnée is only one component in the making of a story, poem or essay. More important is how we organize and describe the raw material, how we marry experience to imagination. This may require letting go of what we’ve been given. We may need to release fact-for-art’s sake.

“Naming is so basic to the writing process, so intricately woven into every effective description, that we often overlook its importance. Yet without this first act, without a precise, significant and musical naming, no description can be attempted, no work of literature born. But”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“What really matters, finally, is the big picture, the fictional dream that lingers after the details have vanished. The big picture is formed not only by our descriptions of characters, settings and events but also by forces that reside above and below our story’s surface—atmosphere, mood, feeling, motif, theme, form, structure and tone. These terms are far from interchangeable.”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. This one sentence could well serve as a crash course in how to create atmosphere. First the bare wires of where and when are suggested (a country road; an autumn day in a time period when men still road on horseback to reach their destinations). Then lights and sound are added: the scene is dark and shadowy; a palpable silence reigns. It’s not a peaceful quiet, the kind that might soothe a tired traveler. Rather, it’s a disturbing silence described only in terms of what it lacks : “soundless.” Other details add to the foreboding: clouds hanging low; a lone rider. And beneath it all a subliminal music plays. I imagine an oboe or a cello, its tones mournfully forlorn. Soon it’s joined by a chorus of deep vowels whose tones are split by harsh consonants and stopped rhythms striking like gongs foretelling doom: dull, dark, soundless, day. Each phrase of the description, like each step of the rider’s horse, draws us deeper toward the gloom that awaits us. Nothing”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Did you hear what you just said?” I say. “That’s exactly where your originality lies. In each bone of your body.” I go on to explain the root of originality: origin. Origin, as in source, spring, primary being. We are most original when we are most ourselves. Only then are we close to our first source, our fueling passions. Discovering”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Positioning ourselves, physically and psychologically, on the same plane with our subjects can help us avoid what Gardner refers to as “frigidity” in our writing, one of the “faults of soul” he warns against. Frigidity is coldhearted failure to respond on a deep, human level to the characters and events of our story. Sometimes,”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives, as you can see from these examples, is that adjectives encourage cliché. It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles; clean-cut good looks; frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but fresh. In “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often, the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.” Making”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Our characters come alive through all these descriptive methods, and more. We establish characters by direct physical description, by our choice of sensory and significant details about the character and his surroundings, and through description of a character’s movements and speech. Less directly, we describe our character through the eyes of other characters, by evoking a character’s private world of thoughts and feelings, and by describing what the character sees through his own eyes. CHRISTENING”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“As you review the descriptions in your stories or poems, looking for places where tone has gone astray, don’t just look at the words, noting their denotations and connotations. Listen to their musical pitch, color and volume, and to the rhythms and durations of your phrases. Since tone resides not only in what you say but in how you say it, you can’t ignore those messages even a dog can understand. Like muffled voices you hear through motel walls, the tones of your descriptions permeate your story’s inner boundaries. Tone”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Childhood events aren’t the only forces that shape a writer’s vision. Your present-day preoccupations, interests and obsessions provide you with original metaphors, as do the subjects you discover through research or accident. Look back over your writing. Reread your stories, poems and essays, noting successful images or metaphors, those passages that seem to have sprung from imagination, not fancy. Notice what you’ve taken time and care to describe—description is one of the entries into metaphor. If you keep a journal or a writer’s notebook, reread old entries. Circle recurring images, descriptions, or isolated words; if the entries are stored in a computer, you can even do a search to see how often a particular word or phrase occurs. This process can help you discover your inner “constellation of images,” the ruling passions that fuel your most original work. Too”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls. Tennyson’s figures of speech—the wrinkled sea crawling and the falling thunderbolt—appeal to my senses, bringing the imagined picture into sharp focus. They clarify, rather than blur, the picture. His metaphors and simile, rather than calling attention to themselves as figures of speech, illuminate the scene, bringing it vividly to the eye of my imagination. Tennyson’s metaphors and similes are not only concrete and sensory; they are also precise. Not literally precise, of course. Figurative language, by definition, deviates from the literal. Literally speaking, waves are not wrinkles, and the sea has no knees on which to crawl. But within the world Tennyson creates, the figures of speech are accurate; they follow natural laws. In contrast, a phrase like “her tears gushed like a geyser” is inaccurate. Tears might trickle, drip, even flow, but they cannot gush like a geyser, and saying that they do distracts the reader from the sense impression you’re trying to create—unless you’re intentionally employing hyperbole to accomplish some literary purpose. Figurative”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“A writer need not be bound by flat statement like “It was a rough sea,” when verbs like tumble and roil and seethe wait to spell from her pen.”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Before we move on to discussing specific ways description can modulate the pace of a story, let’s clarify what we mean by action. Action in a story is not the same as activity. Action is motion that is going somewhere, that pushes the story along. It’s a forward movement, an outward sign of an inward motive. Motion serves, as the lyrics of a popular song suggests, to “second that emotion.” Activity, on the other hand, is mere random movement. Made-for-TV movies often include lots of activity— cars crashing, buildings exploding, bullets flying—with little or no motivated action. When a viewer or a reader turns off the TV or closes the book, complaining that “nothing’s happening,” he’s usually referring not to the lack of activity on the screen or page, but to the lack of forward movement. The difference between activity and action is the difference between running on a treadmill and running in a race. So”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Swift, noisy activity does not always get our attention. Filmmakers, aware of this principle, use it to their advantage. Thus, in the clang and clamor of battle—cannons to the left of us, cavalry to the right, swords clashing, thunder rolling—one soldier leans down to recover a fallen flag. The moment seems to last forever. What’s taking him so long? Slowly, slowly his arm bends, his hand begins its languorous ascent, the flag rippling in slow motion. The camera continues its deliberate tracking— up the length of his arm, across his square shoulder, his sinewy neck. Blue veins are pulsing—one beat, two. At this point, we are clay in the filmmaker’s hand. Through his skilled change of pace, he has grabbed our attention, and he’ll keep it, at least for a while. In this suspended moment, this pause in the action, the filmmaker actually increases our hunger to know the outcome. He’s free to move into the soldier’s mind, perhaps into flashback or dream. He’s free to dwell a while longer on the physical details of the scene—the soldier’s frayed cap, his labored breathing. We will hold still for the details because the filmmaker has slowed the action. Slow.”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Then, following Aristotle’s dictum of “using expressions that represent things as in a state of activity,” I ask the students to set the person in motion. Again, it’s important to be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking the large generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief he always keeps in his shirt pocket.” These three actions describe three very different fathers. Besides providing a visual image for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details. As”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

“If you want the reader to feel intimately related to your subject, try a close-up shot. Describe the character, object or scene as if it were positioned directly in front of your eyes, close enough to touch. Let the reader see the hand-etched signature on the bottom of the wooden bowl or the white strip on the divorcée’s finger where a wedding ring once lay. Let him smell the heaviness of the milking barn after a night of rain, hear the squeak of the farmer’s rubber boots. If you want to get even closer, take the reader inside a character’s body and let him experience her world—the reeling nausea of Lydia’s first morning sickness, the tenderness of her breasts, the metallic taste in her mouth—from the inside out. Then, when you need to establish distance, to remove the reader from the scene as Shirley Jackson did in “The Lottery,” pull back. Describe your object from a great distance. The wooden bowl is no longer a hand-crafted, hand-signed original, or if it is, you can’t tell from where you’re standing. The pregnant woman is no longer Lydia-of-the-tender-breasts; she’s one of dozens of other faceless women seated in the waiting room of the county clinic. As you vary the physical distance between your describer and the subjects being described, you may find that your personal connection with your subjects is altered. Physical closeness often presages emotional closeness. Consider how it is possible that kind and loving men (like my father, who served in three wars) are capable of dropping bombs on “enemy” villages. One factor is their physical distance from their targets. The scene changes dramatically when they face a villager eye to eye; no longer is the enemy a tiny dot darting beneath the shadow of their planes, or a blip on the radar screen. No, this “enemy” has black hair flecked with auburn and a scar over her left eyebrow; she’s younger than the wives they left behind. If”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively

“Another challenge we face is describing something commonly thought of as ugly,imperfect or disgusting. Again, we’re likely to jump to conclusions. Rather than considering our subject firsthand and describing what we observe, we label it. Because we’ve already established, for instance, that slugs are disgusting, we go on to describe them as “slimy” creatures that leave “gooey trails.” Cliché upon cliché. But when we engage our all-accepting eye, when we look beyond surface prejudices and preconceptions into the actual nature of our subject, clichés disappear. In her poem “The Connoisseuse of Slugs,” Sharon Olds transforms her subject with descriptive phrases like “naked jelly of those gold bodies,/translucent strangers glistening among the/stones” and “glimmering umber horns/rising like telescopes.” Her description forces us to see an old subject in a new way. We no longer have to choose between ugliness and beauty; they have realigned themselves, each side illuminating the other. When we engage our all-accepting eye, we discover the flaw that makes surface beauty interesting as well as the arresting detail that redeems a seemingly ugly image. THE”
― Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively