I love color—especially bright, bold colors. That’s why I rarely draw in black and white. But even a black and white sketch can be beautiful, whereas black and white writing is as bland as bread and water. Spreading jam on that bread and infusing fizz in that water will make a huge difference.
The paint of creativity adheres to any writing. Granted, nonfiction has less leeway for creativity than fiction, but that’s a lame excuse for being boring. Readers will more likely remember a fact if you write it in a unique way.
So, whether you are writing an adventure novel, a blogpost, or a ten-page treatise on fermenting pickles, here are four methods to splatter your pages with color.
1. Dab on Similes and Metaphors
Similes and metaphors have aided colorless writing since time began. Every great author who has ever lived, from C. S. Lewis to Charles Spurgeon to God Himself, has employed these to make their writing as vibrant as the rainbow.
Metaphors and similes not only paint your pages, but prime them too. They can clarify and deepen the meaning of your words. For example, “The Bible is full of wise words” would not have near the impact of “The Bible is a treasure chest crammed with golden nuggets of knowledge.” In addition, metaphors and similes are the best pencils to draw a picture in readers’ minds. If I wrote, “Dug chased the squirrel,” readers get a quick sketch of what’s happening, but nothing too detailed. Yet, if I wrote, “Dug chased the squirrel like a bandit pursuing a gold shipment,” the sketch begins to fill in.
What defines a magnificent metaphor or simile? One that’s sensible and distinct. “The judge pounded the desk, cutting into the thief’s conscience like a sword” is a poor simile because pounded doesn’t correlate with cut or sword. It would be better to rephrase it: “The judge pounded the desk, shattering the man’s conscience like a hammer.” Also, a metaphor like “The man was a mountain” flattens your sentences with unoriginality. You could replace mountain with dozens of words, such as cathedral, skyscraper, or flag pole. If you’re going to include a metaphor, use one readers won’t expect.
Metaphors and similes are the perfect seasonings for enhancing flavor, as long as you insert them in moderation. Pepper is good, but if you dump a mound of it in the soup, your family members will be racing to the fridge for a drink of water.
2. Add a Stroke of Humor
Cracking your readers up is no sin, unless you make them laugh so hysterically that they choke on their food and have to rush to the ER, in which case they might sue you and you’ll have to pay five thousand dollars in legal fees.
Humor has the superpower to sharpen our retainment of information. Would you more likely remember math procedures if they were written in the standard format, or if they were presented as a story about a six-year-old math professor named Fred (yes, such a book exists)? A quirky, funny character will go down in history—that’s why Reepicheep and Puddleglum are so memorable. What if Reepicheep wasn’t a mouse? Or what if Puddleglum wasn’t so stubbornly pessimistic and was a swampster instead of a marshwiggle?
Usually a person picks up a book either to learn something or entertain themselves, and sometimes it’s a combination of both reasons. Humor vivifies writing like nothing else can. Laughter is a blessing and we shouldn’t avoid it. Writers can incorporate humor into their stories in hundreds of ways. Have a character spout a witty remark or do something dumb like accidentally running over their cell phone with their electric wheelchair. Crack a joke, pop a pun, describe a scene humorously, cause the ridiculous to occur. You’ll probably end up having fun in the process too.
Some humor belongs in the trash. Corny humor, crude humor, and nonsensical humor will deteriorate the quality of your writing. What you laugh at for hours may not seem funny to someone else. I recommend sifting your jokes through some trusted comedic friends to see if they measure up. Make sure your humor flows with your writing and isn’t just thrown in as a scarecrow against monotony.
3. Vary Your Colors with Sentence Length and Word Choice
People enjoy variety—in their food, wardrobe, and schedules. No one wants to do the same activity every day for 365 days, and no one wants to read the same word or phrase 365 times. It would get annoying if we could only speak in four-letter words, and it gets annoying when a writer only uses four words per sentence. Routine is important, but not if it becomes repetition.
“Jethro raced through the village. He jumped over a basket. He hoped to get there in time. He raced to the door and knocked. Someone tapped his shoulder; he jumped. The person nodded to the time, then disappeared around a corner. Jethro ran after him until he ran out of time.” The words raced, jumped, and ran are repeated twice, and time appears thrice. Note the effect of tweaking the words: “Jethro darted through the village. He jumped over a basket. He hoped to get there in time. He raced to the door and knocked. Someone tapped his shoulder, making him flinch. The person nodded to the clock, then disappeared around a corner. Jethro barreled after him until he ran out of time.”
However, though this paragraph is better than the original, it still needs revising. If all your sentences are similar in length, dryness will creep in. Let’s try adjusting the structure of the sentences: “Jethro jumped over a basket as he darted through the village. He raced to the door and knocked, hoping he’d gotten there in time. Someone tapped his shoulder. He flinched. The person nodded to the clock, then disappeared around a corner. Jethro barreled after him until the time ran out.”
Sometimes minor rewording (assisted by a thesaurus) is all that’s required to break the rock of repetition. A little repetition is okay. After all, a writer can use only so many words before resorting to sentence stoppers like pulchritude. And a few words have no synonyms at all. Never repeating words will hinder your voice and aggravate readers.
4. Erase the Drab
I’ve told you to add this and add that, but one technique for enriching color is simply to eliminate the black and white. How much Nutella you slather on your toast won’t matter if it’s burnt. It’s time to cut or rewrite stale text.
Don’t state the facts, reveal them imaginatively. Don’t say “The old barn was red,” show the reader how “the red paint chips off the crooked barn door.” Instead of “Writing is a difficult profession,” say “Writing is as easy as deodorizing a skunk.” Sometimes it’s best to state the facts so readers don’t become confused, but if you can think of a clear, creative way to communicate the details, do it.
Another smudge to blot out is the obvious. Must you describe Little Joe as having a “gun in hand”? I doubt readers will assume he’s carrying it with his foot. “Tommy sat down on the chair” can be reduced to “Tommy sat on the chair.” If someone scratches his nose, he’ll typically use his fingers, and if someone grabs the phone, she’ll probably answer it. Only mention the unusual.
Also, it’s bad to repeat words, but worse to repeat sentences (you’re not a broken record). I don’t mean literally repeating yourself (most writers know that), but restating what you already wrote in a different way. If Mary thinks “I can’t believe this is happening” in one paragraph, you don’t need to have her think “This is impossible” in the next.
Whatever else is blah in your writing, either chuck it or change it. Readers may or may not notice some of your more interesting sentences, but they will notice the boring ones.
Blending the Palette
The best antidote for dullness is always creativity. Don’t be afraid to view things from a new angle. Think outside the box. Don’t write a certain way just because a certain writer does. Though we shouldn’t disregard grammar or conventional writing advice, we can bend rules without breaking them. Creativity is a rare plant that only the diligent can grow, so cultivate it and don’t let anyone chop it down.