Recently I have read quite a few books on writing, both creatively and otherwise, but I had yet to encounter the all important field of description. It is in this light that I started reading ‘Word Painting’ by Rebecca McClanahan. McClanahan is both teacher and poet, and in this book she offers not only a great defence of the act of description (I too did not take it that seriously to begin with), but a good guide on how to employ it effectively. She runs us through effective description not only in stories and poems, but even in such seemingly disparate activities as journalism, the sharing of anecdotes, and all avenues of communication in between.
The introduction to ‘Word Painting’ is incredible; half description of the authors world, half introduction to the idea of description, masterfully interwoven. I have never experienced such a seamless inception into a concept, one that not only offers a definition, but a vivid and tangible experience of it in action. I instantly became hyper sensitive to the acts of description that surround me; from my Grandpa adding that extra embellishment to his stories to make them feel more real – i.e., explaining that “he was a really tall chap” while gesticulating wildly to give an impression of exactly how tall; to news readers and journalists describing sounds and smells to make us engage our other senses. It really is everywhere, and in many scenarios it is an unconscious act (like my Grandpa waving his hands). But as McClanahan shows, despite effective description being utterly essential to aid visualization and engagement in numerous modes of communication, from novels to news, it is often not employed well, and is a skill that needs to be learned.
This is where McClanahan steps in. In the opening pages, McClanahan summarizes ‘Word Painting’ very neatly: “…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… Along the way I point out some of my favourite passages from novels, stories, essays and poems, suggesting ways to use these passages as models for our own writing.” In reality it does all this and more. There is a lot of guidance in this book. McClanahan takes quotes and guidance from far and wide, from Aristotle to John Gardner, and expounds on ideas that no English teacher I know of goes anywhere near. We learn things like “accurate” noun selection, writing with rhythm, and the use of appropriate sensory adjectives etc.There is so much in there that it took me twice as long to read it as it should, purely because of all the highlighting and note taking I was doing.
All in all this is a brilliant and informative book. I have not read a nonfiction/guide book so easy to read since Stephen King’s memoir/writing how-to. And King does not manage to pack this much information or good guidance in. This book isn’t just for those who want to write, if you want to learn how to tell stories effectively, in any medium, this is a book for you.
Title: Word Painting
Author: Rebecca McClanahan
Pages: 256 (Paperback)
Publisher: Writer’s Digest
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link: Word Painting
Book Depository Link: Word Painting