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Painting With Words!

As writers, we are artists, so show your talent! The English language is filled with vibrant words, so we should never choose words that are dull and lacking in descriptiveness. In this post, I will offer my advice on how to use your words as Rembrandt used a paintbrush.

Recently, a fellow author asked me to review the descriptive quality of a scene that he was struggling with. To not embarrass the author, I will paraphrase one sentence:

“She sat in the room with her golden blond hair all tangled and mangled.”

As this article is on word choice, I will focus on the words.

First of all, why use four words when one will suffice? The phrase “all tangled and mangled” could be replaced with “disheveled” or “matted.” Too often as writers, we use more when less is better.

Secondly, we should always strive to avoid nondescript words. The word “room” can be thought of as a random splotch of paint on canvas. On its own, “room” does not convey much meaning and it certainly does not paint a picture. Many other words would be much more descriptive – basement, kitchen, library, den, bedroom, atrium, conservatory, etc.

He goes on to describe her clothes as being “torn to rags.” While that is a descriptive phrase, it could be restructured to paint a better picture. I will bring it all together and give you an example in a moment.

Adjectives and adverbs, when used correctly and sparingly, can be powerful tools. Perhaps she is not just in a basement, but a “dank basement.” In that scenario, instead of leaving the reader with the bland description of a room, they know she is in a damp, musty, and cold basement.

Using those ideas, I will reinvent his description to showcase the value of word choice and the inclusion of descriptive adjectives or adverbs:

“In the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral, her hair disheveled and clothes tattered and torn, she knelt to silently pray for a better life.”

I want to make it clear here that I am not suggesting that I am a better writer. This scene didn’t come from my mind! It came from the mind of the author. What I am suggesting is that instead of painting by the numbers, we paint from our imagination and let our creativity flow.

Here are a few suggestions on how you might paint a masterpiece with your words:

1. Avoid nondescript words!

Words like room, town, building, Doctor, or street do little in the way of painting a masterpiece. Instead of using these bland words, try to find words that are more descriptive like vestibule, village, skyscraper, cardiothoracic surgeon, or cobblestone way.

2. Remember that less is more!

If a single swipe of the paintbrush can evoke the imagery you are trying to create, then go with that. Why say that he is “in low spirits” and has “lost hope and courage” when you could simply say that he is “despondent?”

3. Use adjectives and adverbs wisely and sparingly.

The right adjective or adverb can make all the difference. For example, “mournfully sobbing at the alter” conveys a much more colorful message and image than “crying at the alter.” Likewise, “the deafening explosion” will ignite your readers’ imaginations more than “the loud bang.”

The rule of thumb here is one and done. Don’t fall into the trap of using multiple adjectives or adverbs for a single description.

4. Expand your vocabulary!

Whenever you are looking for a descriptive word for a particular scene, check out all of the available synonyms. Familiarizing yourself with alternatives will make your paintings much richer.

5. Close your eyes and visualize!

When you have written a scene, close your eyes and recount it in your mind. If the words you have written bring to mind the depiction you were trying to create, then you have done your job well. If not, rinse off your brush and start again.

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