Coloring Your Writing

Writing about color (or colour for British publications) was an exercise I occasionally gave my Creative Writing students. Sometimes you want readers not only to see an exact shade, but to feel it. You want to create a mood, reveal a point of view.

When phrases leap to your mind, like “red as a beetroot”; “blue as the sky; “white as a ghost” you know they are cliches, and should be avoided like the plague. I remember reading one of John Updike’s descriptions of a street, that has always stayed with me: “old asphalt sidings the tint of bruise and dung”. You can actually see it with his eyes.

Metaphors like “green as grass” not only look lazy, but are too exhausted to reveal anything. The challenge is to find new visual imagery that fits the tone of the piece. Imagery should be fresh and inventive, but not constantly over the top. I once read: “a man with skin the color of boiled newspaper” but that really pushes the envelope. Sun and sky make for good practice. Isaac Babel wrote “sun … like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog.” What color is an airport baggage-claim area on a bad day? Jonathan Franzen describes it as “The color of car-sickness.” A poet may use descriptions like raucous purples, coy yellows, prosaic blues, belligerant reds and ardent whites. If you look in your Roget’s Thesaurus (and every writer should own one) you will find synonyms for yellow – tawny, saffron, ochre; for red – claret, rose garnet.

Have an artist’s palette of colors for your writing and learn how to paint with words. As Nathaniel Crane wrote in “The Vestal”: Every gaudy color
Is a bit of truth.

Happy writing.


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