Claire King


Everything Speaks: The Intention in Our Words

Posted on: February 25th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

Further to my last post where I wrote, tongue in cheek, a list of rules *they* would have us follow when writing, a lot of discussion has taken place on the blogosphere. Are there rules? Guidelines? How does it work? Debi Alper will be speaking on this topic at the York Festival of Writing this year, and in responding to this question on her blog I crystallised the only ‘rule’ for writing in which I truly believe:

Everything speaks – so write with intention.

‘Everything speaks’ is a principle that I have been using in my day job for some years. There it refers to the environment into which we welcome our clients, the way that we present ourselves and interact. From the books on the shelves and how they are arranged to the speed at which we move – everything gives a message to others. It can either be put there intentionally, or can exist unintentionally, but the message will be there nonetheless.


I was recently reminded of another way in which this axiom is relevant in a brilliant talk by Author Sarah Dunant. She was presenting the Italian art which had inspired her renaissance trilogy and used the painting Venus of Urbino as one of her examples. I don’t have one I can publish here on the blog, but a quick google and you can have a look at it.

I am utterly ignorant in art history, although Sarah’s talk was very accessible. She highlighted the detail in these paintings which provide clues and messages for the viewer. The painting is not just a pretty picture, it is dripping with symbolism. Everything speaks.

For example, Venus is staring straight at the viewer. This is a remarkable departure from the way women had been portrayed (beautiful, madonna-like, eyes turned down). In the background is a sleeping dog, likely symbolism suggesting unfaithfulness. The pot of myrtle in the window: a symbol of constancy. And what are those maids doing in the background? Is the chest they are rummaging in a marriage chest? Look at that screen behind her – bisecting the painting and pointing right down to her loins, which occupy centre stage in the picture…it’s a story all in itself.

There are clear parallels between artists and writers. Just as the painter chooses a palette of colours, a composition, the elements of the painting, so, as writers, do we:

We choose the point of view according to the focus we want to give to our story, the perspective, the light and the shade.

We choose the tense that will give us the feeling we want, that will best add to the reader’s experience.

We choose the setting, the palette of colours, the scents and sounds of the backdrop to highlight themes, to evoke emotions in the reader.

We balance the action and the description, choose the moments of tension and release…In a nutshell, every line of dialogue, every apple on every tree, every pot boiling over or empty letterbox, every character flaw – everything in our writing speaks. And at the expense of any rules that *they* may set, it is this that we should always remember.

In this case, the best we can do is educate ourselves about the craft of writing: through reading, through learning, through experimenting and practicing. In this way we build the resources available to us so that ultimately we can write consciously, with intention, and achieve the result we want.

28 Responses

  1. Brilliant. If you’re going to have one principle – in life, not just writing – that is an excellent one. And beautifully explained.

  2. Nettie says:

    A beautiful post with advice that cuts through all the tosh we are daily told we must or must not do.
    Thank you.

  3. Lovely to read this, Claire! Agree agree agree – with the caveat that sometimes, what look like clever deliberate choices are not – they just rise up when writing ‘in the zone’, or something…

  4. Profound and accurate. I *try* to abide by this rule in my writing, though it’s for others to judge how well I manage it 🙂

    • claire says:

      Thanks Carola. I guess the only way we can check if our intentions were understood is through feedback, but writing with intent is already such a huge step forwards.

  5. Marisa Birns says:

    Did enjoy this post. And learned! I agree with Vanessa about sometimes deliberate choices are not “chosen,” they just come about.

    Though if they’re very clever, I would like to say I used them deliberately. 🙂

  6. Pictures tell stories and words paint pictures. It’s all to do with the way things are arranged, isn’t it. Both artists and writers have the same tools – a vocabulary or a paintbrush – but the way we put it all together is either an uplifting experience, or not. Thought-full…thank you, Claire.

  7. I agree with all the above comments.Your one rule encapsulates what good writing is and what good writers need to remember.

    Excellent post.

  8. This is a skill that comes with time, I think. With looking over old work and seeing how you failed, or by having people misunderstand your intentions.

    Lovely post.

  9. Excellent post, Claire – and I do like Vanessa’s corollary as well. Sometimes stuff has to be there even if you don’t know why at the time, because it completes the picture.

    • claire says:

      Thanks Jonathan. Yes, I do agree with you and Vanessa, it’s not like we sit and handpick every word (well, at least not in the first draft!) but once the basic components have been thought through a lot of the rest can fall neatly into place.

  10. I loved this post Claire- always love comparisons drawn among various art forms and these parallels do apply just beautifully.

  11. Kim Hutchinson says:

    Well said, Claire. I also love the parallel, a perfect way to portray the principle.

  12. A thought provoking post, Claire. And eye-catching, too. You certainly know how to get and hold a fellow’s attention. 😉 From a life viewpoint, I’m so pleased that my work environment is no longer visible to my clients – I dread to think what my surroundings say about me. As a writer, my view is somewhere between the analytical weighing-up of story style and elements and Vanessa’s more ‘go for it and see what the subconscious provides’ sort of approach. Whatever, I shall be thinking more about my intentions when writing from now no. Thanks, Claire.

    • claire says:

      Thanks, Oscar – although I can’t take the credit for Titian’s painting!
      My surroundings would have all sorts to say to the unfortunate viewer. Fortunately no-one has asked me to do a ‘where I write’ piece yet!

  13. Your post caused this phrase to pop into my mind: painting with words…

    Also, your single maxim, along with your closing comments about learning, reminded me of another wise saying: Study your craft, study the Masters, but when you come to creation, forget all you’ve learned.

  14. […] be noticed or spoken to but isn’t. Now we want to know why. As Claire King’s excellent article on the intent of writing explains it, everything we write should mean something, should add layers. […]

  15. […] Sarah Dunant on Renaissance art, inspiration for her novels, and babies’ bottoms. This talk inspired this post Everything Speaks. […]

  16. […] wrote a blog post a while ago about the intention in what we write – how we choose the palette for our story, […]

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