The Writing Process, Part 5: Keep Painting

In extension of The Writing Process: Sensory Details, Part 4, I share a handful of poems a few private students produced years back. The wording fell into place once the ideas came to life in the brainstorm of senses (explained in Part 4). Tip of the day: quotes wake up poems with the element of reality they provide.  I quieted the protest of the artist in me and convinced her to allow the first two works in excerpt. Yes, a poem should be read in its entirety. But I’d like to keep to my objective efficiently – to provide samples of sensory descriptions at work:


Red is spicy.
Red is ketchup: “Oops! My favorite shirt!”

In a sunset, red pulls the moon.
Red gives us energy.

Red means it.

By Joseph, 1st grade homeschooler


The shades that wrap a rain forest,
The feeling you have after a good night’s rest.

Outstretch of a palm tree,
Grudge of envy.

The life that awakens from a long winter snow,
Green is the fourth color of the promise rainbow.

By Kelsey, 4th grade

Cotton Candy

Powder Puff
Leaves sticky patch on little faces
By the merry-go-round

“Mommy, Mommy, Can I please…?”
Little girls and boys wave their
cotton candy stick triumphantly

Melts to their tongue
More fluffy bites
Leave sandy sweetness in their trail

By Kristen Chang, days before turning 13. Now all grown:
Kristin and I were studying imagery – literary and poetic jargon for mental picture.

The Writing Process, Part 4: Sensory Details

hailstonesI was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.

Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category.  White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.

Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:



White is
baby powder,
cotton candy
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
childhood paste,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
and rest.
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
of home.

The Writing Process, Part 3: To Be or Not To Be

I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.

To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She be.  She is.

The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it. She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet. 

In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.

The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.

But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.

Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say

The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.

Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.

Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:

So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.

I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.

The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.

I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*

The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example.  The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…

Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….

Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.

James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.


James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….

The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.

Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.

The Writing Process, Part 2: Save Spit

P1040057I’ve taught writing in both public schools and private settings. Years after their last lesson with me, I asked two very bright sisters (with diametric learning styles) what they remembered from their long season with me. Both answered, “Save spit.” Turned out, the pithy injunction had velcroed itself on their brain and conducted the papers they went on to write in college and high school.

Save spit is one of my top writing protocols. I shave as many words as I can and go back and cut some more.  Brevity isn’t so much my goal as conciseness. You’re allowed to spin 2000 words on a subject when it begs amplification or because you need to reach every milepost of reasoning for a crisp presentation. Smooshing those thoughts into 1000 cloudy words is not what I mean. What I do mean is simply word economy in as much as it is possible.

My private students hated being made to trim the verbiage. My private students hated trimming the verbiage.  “The teacher wants 500 words in this essay.  How’m I gonna reach that?!”  Of course it was the clear thesis, rich elaboration, cogent arguments that would satisfy the length requirement. And when you’re not writing to satisfy a quota is when you’re really writing, isn’t it?

It is not only hard but pretty impossible, actually, to isolate a writing principle. Like anything that breathes, the writing process is an organic movement much like a dance – of the technical and the artistic. So there are plenty of moments when you’ll favor one guiding principle over another.  Paint a picture, for instance, is another mantra I write by.  Sometimes I choose an extra few words to this end.

I started writing again.   vs.

I blew the dust off the pen in my head and picked up my beloved writing again.

Both work. The first sentence not only boasts efficiency but encourages curiosity for what is to come. The second, while blatantly injuring my sacrosanct dictum of word economy, paints a picture and evokes a feeling entirely absent in the other sentence. So writing principles are not commandments. Saving words does not mean being dry. You want flowers, meaning beauty, in your writing – without being flowery.

There was a part in the first installment of my 20 Things I Consider Sacred series I wasn’t crazy about. A reference to marriage:

Boundaries meld to your oneness, while husband and wife remain distinct. It is a mystery.

Ewwwhh!  *Finger in throat* Augh!  God bless the gracious readers who put up the like on that one.  Each time I look back, the more vigorously I shudder at the melding.

It is now:

Boundaries in oneness, a mystery.

I return to old posts with a fresh eye and a pair of shears, and clip what I possibly can. I don’t want clutter in the path of my readers. I try to keep it tight, so that the words hug the intended meaning.

Stephen King in “On Writing” shares a rewrite formula he learned from an editor which transformed his writing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. “Before the Formula, if I produced a story that was four thousand words or so in first draft, it was apt to be five thousand in second…After the Formula, that changed. Even today I will aim for a second-draft length of thirty-six hundred words if the first draft of a story ran four thousand…If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”