susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. A devotee of purposeful pre-writing, Susan encourages workshop audiences to maximize writing time by planning ahead, mapping the writing journey and beginning from a place of intimate knowledge. Her books include Blue Heart Blessed, the Rachael Flynn Mystery series, and A Window to the World, named by Booklist magazine as one of the Top Ten Christian novels for 2005. When she's not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at her San Diego church. Visit her website

The Page, Your Canvas

Choosing the right words to tell your story is like an artist mixing just the right colors on the palette.

I have long been awed by the bold talent of artists who can take a blank canvas and create from nothing a visual story of color, form, and depth. I lack that particular skill, but I appreciate the ability a proficient painter has to communicate truth in a remarkable and unforgettable way.

Fiction writers share a bond with artists that we can too easily fail to be grateful for. We have a vision for the story we wish to tell. We have the dogged determination to tell it. We have a canvas. And we tell it with tiny tubes of paint called words.

I did not coin the term word painting. It is the lovely concept of Rebecca McClanahan, whose book of the same title I highly recommend. Painting with words is simply changing your perspective of what words do. Do they tell or do they show? Do they describe or do they define? Do they explain or do they evoke?

Attend enough writers’ conferences or read enough writing books and you’ll hear the show-don’t-tell mantra so much you may wish you’d taken up scuba diving instead. The fact is showing is a tried and true concept that separates mediocre writing from stellar writing. And this concept begins to influence your writing when you learn to choose the right words for your story: words that surprise, remind, pierce, move, even offend. It begins when you decline the common and mine your mind for the extraordinary.

Here’s what I mean: Any number of words can describe the color and texture of an apple. The common words are red, crisp, and juicy. Use these words to describe an apple and you’ve done nothing to distinguish your writing from anyone else’s. Your goal as a writer is to do just that—distinguish yourself from other writers. So instead of using tired, overused words, you could instead describe an apple as being crimson-hued and glistening like Sunday hair ribbons. That hearkens back to a past that involved my senses. That is painting with words rather than defining with words.

When you paint with words you create an image with depth in the reader’s mind. You make what is fictional and imaginary seem real. We’re not talking about descriptive overkill, we’re talking about making what seems flat (the paper world of our books) appear three dimensional and able to meet us at the sensory level.

In her excellent book, McClanahan writes: “Writing descriptively doesn’t necessitate writing more. Description isn’t a steroid, something to make our writing stronger and better, nor is it an additive promising more miles to the gallon.” Descriptive writing is actually making every word count, choosing words that engage the senses. Sometimes that means using fewer words, not more.

In The Shape of Mercy, which releases this month from WaterBrook, I wanted to describe the library of a reclusive octogenarian who loves books but carries a lifetime of regrets. This is how I chose to describe it:

The Shape Of Mercy
While the sitting room appeared purely decorative the library looked as though Abigail spent every waking moment in it, surrounded on all sides by piles and stacks and cases of books. It was the first time in my life I’d been surrounded by books and felt uneasy. Only half of them were housed on shelves. The rest were loose, unfettered, poised as if to attack . . . I walked to the chair, sat down, and minded my ankles as if the books closest to me might nip at my feet.

It was important to me to communicate that Abigail’s books helped her deal with the heartache of her empty life and protected her from further harm by providing escape. I chose words to describe the books that fell outside of convention: loose, unfettered, poised as if to attack, nip at my feet. To look at books this way, I had to step outside the box and consider what senses I wanted to arouse, what fears and longings I wanted to evoke. This scene was meant to appeal to senses other than sight.

In my novel In All Deep Places, a teenager from a normal, loving family lets a kid from the dysfunctional family next door help him wash his car:

In All Deep Places
Kieran scampered off, returning a moment later with a faded rag frozen by time and misuse into a stiff terry-cloth fossil.

“See, I can help!”

The sight of Kieran with his ocean-blue eyes and mop of curly dark hair, coupled with his eagerness to help and all that Luke knew that Kieran didn’t, weakened him. He would let him help.

The “terry-cloth fossil” was my attempt to conjure in the reader’s mind a picture of the effects of living in a dysfunctional home.

The best way to write a more descriptive scene or character description is to ask yourself, What emotion do I want to evoke in my reader? What sense do I want to exploit? If it is fear, then make a list of things or thoughts that evoke fear. As you brainstorm, don’t skip anything. List everything you can think of: heights, spiders, failure, the dark, big dogs, thunderstorms, monsters, commitment. Look at your list. Which of these can you weave in descriptively to evoke the emotion you are targeting?

Painting with words is a learned art. Like a lot of skills, it isn’t one you will perfect overnight. But the more you seek to appeal to the senses with words that rise above the ordinary, the more you will find yourself wiping paint off your fingers at the end of the writing day.