Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Picture This: Good Writing Should be Visual

There have been many studies done on language concreteness—the fact that specific, vivid, definite words and phrases evoke mental images—and it has been shown to be an important determiner of reading comprehension. In a paper published by the International Reading Association, the authors write: ‘“snarling tiger” is concrete and image-evoking, but “policy concept” is abstract, less likely to evoke images.”
Though this conclusion—that some words are more likely than others to produce mental images—seems intuitive, many writers are still ignoring it, and not writing in a way that is most effective at producing word-images. I contend that all of those writers’ readers suffer because of it.
Case in point, a writer I was working with had written a sentence that went something like this: “She remembered how she’d sat there by the fire, as a young girl, having her hair brushed by her mother.” I brought up the concept of language concreteness and together, we changed the line to: “She saw herself as a young girl, sitting by the fire, her mother brushing her hair.”
“Saw” is visual, “remembered” is not—you can picture someone in the act of seeing, but can you picture someone in the act of remembering? And “a young girl” is something we can easily picture (though all of us will have a different picture), so the sooner we get to that phrase, the better the imagery-inducing effect. The mother comes in sooner, too, which is all to the good, as the girl having her hair brushed is a very general idea until the mother comes in—after all, the young girl could have been having her hair brushed by a sister, a friend, or even a teacher. We don’t have to wait so long before we can “picture” what is happening.
This of course, explains the war on “thought verbs” that I’m waging, along with Chuck Palahniuk and others. Thought verbs are not visual. And the current focus on eliminating so-called “filter words” is in some ways driven by the same concept.
One great trick for spotting all this thought-full filtering is to read your work out loud—or have someone else read it aloud. You'll hear endless iterations of your characters having “thought about” and “remembered” and “contemplated” and the like. Mark those words and phrases. When you go back and rewrite, you'll find ways to substitute verbs that make your writing much more active—and, in the process, much more visual.
So, get to reading and re-writing now—and hasta pronto!


  1. Great reminder - and I liked the specificity. Am going back over something I wrote just now to check for the 'filter words' Thanks for the useful tips!


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