How Many Words to Paint a Picture…?

Writers, editors, and agents like to talk about voice. That elusive thing that gets you published or doesn’t, that sets you apart from others. Much as people have tried, it’s a concept that’s difficult to boil down to a sentence or two.

One of the aspects of voice is how you write descriptions. This is one of the unique fingerprints of your writing that makes it possible for people to tell you apart from another writer. It’s part of your unique gift for storytelling.

Honestly? Descriptions are hard to get just right. If only we could attach pictures to our stories. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, really, having a nice photo or rendering of what we pictured every hundred pages or so in order to assure ourselves that our readers got it, that the scene we so carefully tried to describe was fully absorbed by them, no room for communication errors. Unfortunately (or maybe not. Haha), the picture thing isn’t an option, so we have to keep practicing using our words to create a picture in our readers’ minds that bears some resemblance to what we were seeing when we wrote it.

Mucho Lake

How would you describe this picture? Are you a writer who would write long paragraphs about the blues and greens? Would you make an effort to explain the way the road curves around the lake, without so much as a guardrail? Would you try to capture the wilderness feeling of the picture? Write about the trees? Or would you just tell your reader that it’s a mountain lake straight out of a fairy-tale and leave them to fill in the blanks?

If everyone reading this post wrote about the scene above, even if we set strict limits on the number of words you could use, every single example would be different. Every. Single. One.

Here’s what I do think writers need to know…there are generalizations about readers’ preferences that are true. And while writing isn’t all about some set of imaginary “rules,” reader preferences are things to pay attention to if you ever want to have readers (or if you want more readers). If you’re a Hemingway-esque describer and you think less is more…readers of historicals might feel like you’ve robbed them of one of their favorite parts of the story. If you describe the interior of a house and take several pages to do so in a suspense novel…you’ve lost that target reader (you know, unless there’s blood on the furniture or something, but still…).

Use your words to help us feel part of the setting, to help us see it. But use them appropriately for your genre. Also use the words you enjoy reading. Do you skim long description paragraphs? Are they your favorite part? Or are you somewhere in between? How you answer those questions should have some bearing on how you write.

Know your reader.

Know yourself.

And make your setting come alive with your words in the unique way that is yours alone.

Setting and Straying from your Brand

BrandBranding is even more about defining the essence of a writer than it is defining the niche or genre. We all leave an imprint on others—some of us do this in a strategic way while others leave a message without meaning to. So why not be intentional?

How is it some can write different types of books and be consistent to their brand and others seem to be disloyal to their readers by branching out? It all depends on voice. Does the voice match the brand?

For example: Liz Curtis Higgs. I once talked with her at the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) and told her, “I use you as an example in my marketing classes. When I teach branding, I explain that writers don’t have to declare a niche but they have to be true to their writing essence. Even though you write fiction, nonfiction, Bible Studies, humor and children’s books, your voice is consistent in each work. I see and hear Liz Curtis Higgs in every piece I read by you. You have no idea what a relief that is to writers who are so confused by the industry push to get branded into just one little box.” We had a good discussion about this topic. Then I told her, “When you are true to your voice, that’s the best brand of all, because it’s the imprint God wants you to leave.”

But then there’s John Grisham. His readers expect legal suspense. And he’s good at it. Made his money with this point of view. Any time he veers from this identity, some of his loyal readers feel betrayed. They don’t get what they are looking for in between the covers. They find a confused voice. Others have loved it. Is it worth it to take the risk? He can get away with it because if only 25% of his loyal readers buy his books when he strays from his brand, that’s still a big seller, but can a regular writer afford to only sell 25% of their normal book sales if they depart from their brand?

My advice to writers setting up a brand is to create a think tank or wisdom team and conduct a survey. Make sure it’s a variety of people who know you well (in the publishing industry, in ministry, from your target audience, family and friends). Ask them to give you some key words that best describe your essence (as a person, in your writing, in your speaking, in your ministry, etc.). Pay attention to the words that pop up on several lists. Try to capture those descriptors in your brand, and also make sure it has a “deliverable” quality to it. Those paying attention to your brand have a WII-FM mentality (What’s In It For Me).

For me, the words “light” and “shine” kept popping up. So I created my taglines and brand around that impression. This way, people know my voice, and know what I bring to the table when they connect with me.

Brand combines voice, style, audience, content, tagline, logo, style, colors, and more. It’s that overall impression you make (strategic) or leave (accidental).

The industry does want your brand—your voice—to speak to certain groups. It’s easier to sell to niche markets than to general markets. It’s better to categorize yourself as a certain type of writer, and then set yourself up as a go-to-writer in those genres or categories. Once you are established, and you think you can be true to your voice, then you can branch out. Let your brand be your filter so you know what projects are a good fit, and which ones to pass up.

What impression are you leaving?

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KathyWillisKathy Carlton Willis spins many plates as writer, speaker, editor, and platform coach. She writes and speaks with a balance of funny and faith—whimsy and wisdom. Kathy discusses the key issues that hold believers back and shines the light on their paths to freedom. Kathy’s passionate about helping audiences have lightbulb moments. All told, nearly a thousand of Kathy’s articles have been published online and in print publications. Speaker to Speaker: The Essential Speaker’s Companion (OakTara) and Grin with Grace (AMG) are set to release in 2014. She serves alongside her pastor husband, Russ Willis, in local church ministry.

Having Confidence in My Own Voice


I took writing classes, read and applied hundreds of writing craft books, and hired freelance editors. So ten years later, why did one freelance editor say I had no voice?

“It’s time,” she said, “to write a mission statement for your story. And stick to it.”

Then I read one more book, Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton. I’d mistaken craft for voice, he said. And, as I honed my writing skills I’d lost my voice in the process.

Yet there was hope. On page 73 Les gave me a signed permission slip to write in my own natural voice.

My unique voice reveals my take on life, including my beliefs, fears, hopes, and dreams, memories of childhood celebration and disappointment, the embarrassing teenage years, followed by adult accomplishments and failures.

Some have said that writer’s block comes from editing out your natural voice before it reaches the page. Yet when you’re in the zone, words pour out freely, words that are in your natural voice.

When I use my natural voice, I have an original story. One that no one else can tell. I must simply accept that not everyone will like my writing and not everyone is my target audience.

Have you ever wondered why movies are so different from the books that inspired them? The fact is the filmmaker destroys the novel writer’s voice. If you prefer the book over the movie, what you loved about it was that voice.

In my own writing, I like to read the printed pages of my draft while walking around the house. The body mind connection kicks in and I realize when the dialogue is off. Ooops, I think, he wouldn’t talk like that. Layer by layer the character voice emerges.

“When you sit down to write, allow God to flow through you to use you. Let His words inspire you to write the things He lays on your heart. You are unique, and therefore your voice is unique in speech and in writing. Your voice is a gift straight from God’s hands, speak and write for His glory, and your matchless qualities will touch lives that no one else can touch”. ~~Lisa Buffaloe

Q4U: How did you find the secret to unlock the personality in your writing voice?