“Color” in writing


I think this is probably my favorite Rembrandt. More than that: it is a lesson! What makes this painting so good is the same thing that makes good writing good. It is the sparing use of color and light.

For two years, I taught at Berkeley’s journalism school (thanks to Orville Schell, the then-dean, who invited me). That was the first time that I had to think about (ie, analyze, intellectualize, verbalize) writing, as opposed to just doing it for a living. And one thing that struck me is that all my students, and quite a few of the teachers there, grotesquely overdid that thing writers call “color”.

Before I go any further, so that we are on the same page, let me give you a caricature of what I mean (this is made up! No real writers are being harmed or embarrassed!):

On a bright, sunny day, John Smith was striding into his corner office, with a view of the Hudson and pictures of his three sons (Jimmy, 12, Billy, 14, and Bobby, 18) on his desk, next to a pile of Wall Street Journals and a cup of Starbucks soy latte. “I love this view,” said Smith. The Fortune 500 executive then turned…..

How many New Yorker articles have you read that started with some variation of ‘On a recent Sunday afternoon…’ or “It was a dark, overcast day when John….”, only to discover on the third of the article’s fifteen pages that these details would almost certainly prove to be of no help whatsoever?

So there I was at the J-School, getting paid to read piece after piece by bright-eyed young journalism students who were so eager to prove that they had been there (wherever there happened to be), that they had actually interviewed some guy, that they had got the color, that they were ready for the New Yorker. It got extremely tedious.

Color and substance

Am I against colorful writing? You must be mad. Of course not. I love color. By the standards of The Economist, I am a “color” guy. No child has ever said to his parents, ‘mommy, I want to grow up and write really monochrome stories’. If you have ever felt the impulse to try your luck as a writer, it was because you loved color, whether or not you called it that yet.

The problem is that color without substance is just a paint bucket that tipped over. I’m not even talking about Rembrandt versus, say, Jackson Pollock. I’m talking about Pollock’s studio floor before he cleaned it up.

Color has to be in support of something. And that something has to be an idea, a thought, a story. The mistake many writers make is to list details. Lists are boring; we use them to go shopping. Details are boring, unless they illuminate some meaning. It does not have to be epic. It can be quirky, amusing, moving, insightful, whatever. But there has to be a there there.

So the trick is to find substance, and then to take away details so that only a few splashes of light and color remain, which then filter out the entire sensual world around the reader and deliver him to that one place that you, the writer, have in mind for him. In terms of thought process, it may be the opposite of what my students were doing, and what I used to do.

I can find no better illustration than Rembrandt, above. You are drawn deep into this man. If I asked you, you would say that there is so much color in this painting, so much light. Only then would you notice that most of the canvas is dark, that very little of it is … in color.

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11 thoughts on ““Color” in writing

  1. Carefully illuminated picture and very illuminating post.

    Reminds me of one of the principles of Japanese design (encountered in the context of gardens) – the principle of simplification. Echoes exactly what you’ve described. Roughly a design/garden isn’t finished until the last thing, that can be, is taken out. The skill is in the selection of the fewest constituents that convey the essence.

  2. Your illustrated post (marvelous way to teach) reminds me of the difficulty of assigning a grade to a piece of student writing.

    Lovely writing, little content. Work on insight. C

    Thought-provoking content, miserable writing. Work on expression. B

    Precise gem! Clear writing, thoughtful content. A

  3. Jens wins this week’s award for simplicity, elegance and economy (SEE).

    Cheri, I thought the scale nowadays was A-, A and A+. (Which is why I am smarting from my recent A- for poetry)

    Mr Crotchety, I confess that I have not read anything by Thomas Pynchon. But re Charles Dickens: yes, he wrote colorfully, but also had substance, no? He got more substance as he got older, which made him observe more details about people.

    • Glad to hear it, Jenny.

      Next project: Don’t want to start another book before the pending one is published, and they’re friggin taking forever. Then, I’ve got some ideas. But you never know.

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