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Book Review: Word Painting, by Rebecca McClanahan

Cover of the book Word Painting Revised Edition by Rebecca McClanahanLike many writers, I enjoy reading about writing and getting different perspectives on the craft. So while perusing the writing section at my local bookstore, I came across Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting Revised Edition. I wrote briefly about it in my last post, but it deserves far more than a simple mention.

Many of you have likely checked out the writing section of your local bookstore, too. You see books offering to teach you how to make lots of money from your writing or how to create a good plot so your story will get published. Those books focus heavily on the mechanics of writing. While that’s important, there’s only one way that you will stand out: developing your voice. I haven’t seen a lot of books in this arena yet. Word Painting Revised Edition, though, is one such book: not only does McClanahan break down description into its meaningful parts (and leave me wishing I’d read her book before starting high school), but she also continually emphasizes that adding description isn’t something you just plop into a book: it has to land there organically.

Now, you may be wondering how you can write “organic” description while following writing advice? It’s no different than riding a bike. First, you have to learn how to ride. Then come the rules of the road. Once you’re comfortable with both, how you get from A to B is your choice: Do you take the long, relaxing scenic route? Or the direct, intense one? Do you follow all the rules of the road? Or do you break them? Do you signal your intent to drivers? Or surprise them? (For safety’s sake, I hope you follow the rules and signal! But I digress…)

Writing description is the same. McClanahan first describes the basics of description: sensory descriptions, metaphors and similes, and how to liven description with verbs. Then she delves into nuances like how description changes based on the point of view you’re writing from, and how to bring characters to life through description. Throughout the book, she sprinkles advice on how to fit your own voice into your descriptions. I wrote about finding your voice via your constellation of images in my last post.

I enjoyed finally reading a book that spoke to me as a human being. I imagine most who read her book also want to earn money from writing. However, artists with a unique voice (which can only be their own voice) usually soar higher than those trying to copy someone else (even unintentionally).

The hard part about reading books like this one is looking back at your own writing, being honest with yourself, and rewriting parts as needed. Parts that emotionally excited you when you wrote them are especially hard to rewrite. But McClanahan actually makes you excited about going back and reworking things, because she shows you all the possibilities that exist.

In the end, she shows you how to meld your own voice with description so you don’t end up having sentences like, “The chair was made of wood. It was beautiful and old and red, and sat there like a cow waiting to be chased to the edge of the Earth.” Instead, you’ll find ways that ring true to you and your reader.

Do you have any tips on how to write effective description?

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