I’ve hated writing description for as long as I can remember. Hated it. I always wanted to get to the good stuff like dialogue and rip-roaring action and not be slowed down by having to begrudgingly describe, for a winded paragraph or page, my characters’ eyes, hair, skin, etc. Thus, my skills in writing description have suffered immensely, all because I never sat down and took the time to study how to properly use what I outright refused to understand something essential to all writing, not just fiction.
Fortunately, I have found enlightenment and salvation in Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting.
Word Painting is a reference for writers who want to utilize description in their stories more effectively instead of having it be bland, obligatory words on the page. By explaining what description is and how it works so well in certain cases, McClanahan successfully provides the reason why description is so essential: to let readers enter what John Gardner refers to as the “fictional dream,” the point in which the world of the book becomes “more real” than reality itself (4). With McClanahan’s twenty-five years in teaching writing, Word Painting is dense, but rich, bringing up passages ranging from authors like Amy Tan to Flannery O’ Connor to illustrate description’s capabilities. Because of this, her salient points might feel like they get lost within the personal anecdotes and explanations.
However, this isn’t to say that this is a bad thing, and shouldn’t keep you from reading this book (unless you know outright you’re not a fan of this style of book with multiple examples and whatnot). I’d rather have too much explanation—more density—than too little explanation. That being said, this is a book that you will want to take your time with if you’re serious about mastering description—perhaps reading it once for the overall gist, and a second time, spending a week on each chapter and doing as many exercises as possible.
Otherwise, I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve always needed a book like this to guide me on my writing journey, and am very glad I got it. It will make you think differently about about the words you put on the page, and the way they’re presented, but it will be entirely for the better, because it’ll be laced with flavor, purpose, and confidence. Word Painting is definitely worth picking up if you teach writing or want to get better at it.