A Book for Writers

CaptureOnly occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my readers who are writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I read a book. Being a slow reader, I don’t usually finish a 419 paged book in a few hours. But I finished What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.

It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.

He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, askign them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert. He gives insights how an actor might go about preparing for a role such as Hamlet and how the audience sees the actor in that role.

Over the years, I have concluded that the best way to describe a character is emotionally through the use of physical description such as: angry eyes, closed-mouthed, tight jaw, weighted down body, open faced, friendly smile. It use this more than I worry about the color of a character’s eyes. After all, there are only a few colors for eyes: blue, gray, brown, black, hazel, green.

The thing is that it took me a long time to arrive at this destination with my writing. Mendelsund’s book is the icing on the cake. So do yourself a favor and get the paperback copy of this book, not the eBook.

Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.


18 thoughts on “A Book for Writers

  1. How dare you post such a teaser about a writing book I will now have to purchase–after doing so much to whittle down my collection of books on writing? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks for this!

  2. It’s funny — I avoid physical description in both written and live storytelling, but I don’t see this as a deliberate choice, more an area that either needs to be developed (maybe) or doesn’t seem relevant/pertinent. Part of it may stem from my own tendency to look away (intermittently but often) when I’m talking, trying to figure out how to describe a situation, AND when someone else is talking, especially if I’m trying to really get what they’re saying. It’s like the physical part of them, especially if they are new to me, and of everything interferes w/ my thinking,

    And when I’m doing my own writing, although my imagination is very visual (but more like snap shots than movies), I sometimes fixate on/try to figure out how to describe characters getting from point A to point B, what are doing with their bodies, especially their hands — but usually, for me, these hang ups are a symptom of a story gone off-course.

    People say writing workshops can really help w/ this sort of thing, but I hate the idea of gunking up the works with things that I don’t appreciate myself.

    Not everyone’s writing is for everyone.

    Thank you for the book recommendation.

  3. As a reader, too, I think this would be interesting. I’ve seen it around and wondered if I should read it. Now I’m thinking it would make a good gift for my mother who is a reader and a writer!

  4. The idea of asking readers to describe a single character they’ve all read about is inspired.

    In real life, I have a hell of a hard time recognizing people–I’m somewhat face blind, as they call it these days–so as a writer I’m drawn to a person’s presence rather than the details.of face or body, which don’t usually carry much emotional weight anyway. One of my best descriptions (in my opinion, of course), had someone leaning in the doorway, “short and bargelike.” Hair color? Eye color? Who cares?

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