Once Upon a Time….


Word Painting



This is a reblog from a post I did in 2015, and my, how the years have passed so quickly. After writing four books, I am reblogging, once again, this earlier post. Word Painting, The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan (an excerpt from Writer’s Digest, January 2015) Here are four secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description. I did purchase this exemplary book, and I would still keep it on my writing desk today, had not a writer friend borrowed it…three years ago. I hope it comes back home…someday soon. I hope you find Rebecca McClanahan’s non-fiction as helpful as I have when writing description for my characters.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

  1. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives 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 that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “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.”

  1. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

  1. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see.

As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

Note: As a writer, I found all of Rebecca McClanahan’s descriptive suggestions really adaptive to almost any genre. I hope you do too. 



19 thoughts on “Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

  1. frenchc1955 says:

    Karen, thank you for this excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Charles, thank you so much for reblogging. This book truly is a keeper and I often refer to it when wanting something more creative and interesting as well as colorful too. Karen 🙂


  2. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    Here is an excellent post on description from K.Demers Dowdall.


  3. Excellent post! It’s always good to be reminded of the finer points of craft. (After cautioning against the APB description, which he referred to as the Police Blotter Description, my first creative writing professor also advised us not to worry about The Man with No Neck. If the description of a character doesn’t include what his neck looks like, will the reader believe that the character has no neck? Of course not!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liz, you are so right, we know the character has a neck, unless he is the headless, neck-less monster in some horror movie or book. Can’t say I have ever come cross that particular monster. Your comment made me laugh – so delightful. Thank you, Liz! Karen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Karen! To give credit where credit is due, The Man with No Neck came from Tony Ardizzone.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Liz, thank you so much for including that information, just in case I ever what to use that phrase in the future – I will know where and by whom wrote it. Karen 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Since I didn’t see it the first time around, I’m glad to catch it this time. VERY helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marlene, Yes, I found it so creative and so helpful. It really opened my eyes to so many possibilities of description. Awesome! Karen:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post. Thank you, Karen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marina, my pleasure, Marina! Karen 🙂


  6. Excellent post, Karen. I love all these ideas. And great examples too. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Diana, thank you so much for your praise. I always feel as though I just received an A+ and thus, your words make me want to do even better with everything I do as a blogger and writer. Awesome! Karen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I went out and purchased the book. I’m looking forward to diving in. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Diana, I know you will love it. My sister has borrowed my book, and heavens knows when I will get it back. I will probably have to buy another one. Karen 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Jennie says:

    Excellent post, Karen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jennie, thank you so much for the lovely comment – that made my day! Word painting- the Fine Art of Writing Descriptively is a really great book. Karen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jennie says:

        You’re welcome, Karen. Good to know about the book. 🙂


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