Monday, February 20, 2012

Keeping it Fresh—Writer's Craft: Color

Sometimes we forget how important it is to refresh our writing process. We develop our approach and our routines, we find what feels like it's working for us, and we pour our energies into that. Each day that we perform these efforts successfully, we reinforce the power of the approach and routine. This is good stuff—important for us as developing writers, and even as established writers. But, of course there's a hitch, a trap, a paradox here, as with everything else about process: the more skilled and comfortable we become in our familiar creative process, the less fresh and imaginative we are.

The key word in the above sentence is familiar. We need to nip this sinking-into-familiar-pleasures business in the bud before familiar transforms into rut. Every once in a while we need to shake things up. I'm not talking about throwing out the baby with the bathwater (cliché, anyone?), but simply taking a deep breath, walking away from our project, and spending an hour releasing what we know and opening ourselves to discovery.

I know. . . work, work, work. But there's an easy way to do this, which dovetails beautifully with the whole paradoxical nature of this conundrum: go back to basics for a little refresher in some specific area. Just for today, let's choose color.

A favorite guide of mine for doing this is a wonderful teacher and author named Priscilla Long. Here, from her book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, is an idea about how to reinvigorate your writing by incorporating a fresh approach to color in your verbiage.

Long says, "We've heard the phrase,"gray prose." Gray prose is general prose, colorless prose. Put color in your prose."

How to do this? Long's suggestions*:

  • Look around you. What colors do you see? If you were to paint the scene in front of you, what pigments would you squeeze from the tube?
  • Describe what you see. Use concrete nouns where you can. Rubies, urine, e.g.—carry color onto the page without further elaboration, and are powerful; stronger than adjectives.
  • Remember the color verbs: to blacken; to yellow; to purple.
  • Identify colors from a classic, sophisticated, color lexicon. Long suggests we go to an art supply store and get sample sheets from purveyors of pigments, like Winsor & Newton. The sheets have daubs of color painted on them, which are called by stable names that have evolved over centuries, like burnt umber, and yellow ochre. This is preferable, she suggests, to colors of house paints and printing inks, which are named by advertising writers and impossible to identify without looking at them (e.g. Autumn Purple). Burnt sienna is burnt sienna, no matter who manufactures it.
  • Any common object, substance, or living thing that has a stable color can be used as a color word: an item may be 'wheat' or 'blackberry'  or 'ebony' colored, e.g.
  • Colors derived from objects or living things become instantly metaphorical, in that they compare one thing to another. Instantly, then, the writer needs to . . . make the metaphor intensify the character or setting or situation rather than detract from it. (You wouldn't describe a flower in the tropics as 'snow white,' for example. There's no snow in the tropics. You might instead say it is 'ghostly white,' as if deprived of color by dark, dense growth that surrounds it.)

Exercise: Do what Long has identified as "the Here and Now" exercise: Go to a café, a park, a library, down to the river (you get the idea). Write for fifteen minutes at a steady pace without stopping. Describe what's in front of you, paying close attention to color. Write slowly and mention the color of everything you see. Use as many different words for colors as you can think of (words for brown, e.g.: dun, auburn, burnt sienna, umber, chocolate, turd-colored, straw-colored, molasses. Her eyes were the color of molasses.) 

Think of comparisons to objects in the world as you write. What objects are the same color as this person's hair, e.g., or his eyes? List these, or phrases describing them, such as, his eyes were blue like the sky, no, brighter, like robin's eggs, etc. Later, choose the one that's most accurate not only for the color, but for the character and situation. A character with steel blue eyes differs considerably from one with pale blue eyes.

Remember, nouns and verbs are strong, adjectives and adverbs are weak. Do not proliferate adjectives in your color practice. Use color verbs: Dusk reddens the sky. Use nouns that emit their colors: walnut, eggplant, cherrywood. Add a color adjective, but force it to earn its keep by deleting two adjectives and one adverb.

When you come back to your project, I promise you'll see it differently after this exercise. Fresher and brighter or darker. Definitely deeper. Enjoy!

~ Linda
*combination of quote and paraphrase


  1. LOVELY!!!!! I really enjoy colors and how wonderful that we can bring them into our writing!

    1. Thanks, Laura. It's fun to think about and do, isn't it?

  2. I am always battling the darned "grey prose." Great post, Linda!

    1. Well, Lydia, maybe you're just a natural-born storyteller who's focus is on storyline. That's a strong place to be. If all writing is revision, as they say, it seems easier to add color than story to our prose later!

  3. I love this idea! I'm definitely trying this. Thanks Linda. :)

    1. You're so welcome, Heather. Priscilla Long is pretty great, all right.

  4. Outstanding advice! I will totally use this. I'm guilty of falling into cliche territory with my words. Adding accurate color choices is a challenge, but will help.

    1. I'm so glad it's useful, Lin! It is certainly a challenge for me, I know that much. Maybe one that we don't want to overdo, too, but when it's done sparingly and well, oh, my.