Why the power of words can help paint a picture - Ian McMillan

I’m just looking at a photograph, a colour photograph taken from an old slide.

The simple act of looking can help a writer find the right words, says Ian McMillan.


Older readers will remember those slides with the white borders that you used to put into whirring and often overheating slide projectors and project on to the wall – or on to a screen if you were posh.

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My late Uncle Charlie took thousands of these slides and they’re an invaluable record of family life in Darfield in the 1960s. My niece had a few printed as photographs for my birthday and I’ve got them spread across the table now and the task for the writer (me) is to try to convey to the reader (you) the essence of the photograph and I’ll have to forget that old saying about a picture being worth 1,000 words because my job is words, not pictures. So I’ll ignore those of you saying ‘Why doesn’t he just put the picture at the top of the column instead of the usual one?’ I won’t do that because I’m a writer and trying to hone my descriptive skills.

The photographs are of my fourth birthday so they would have been taken in 1960. There’s a big group of us round a table and there’s a cake with four candles and we’re all wearing spectacular paper hats; each one looks like its been individually sculpted and some of them wouldn’t look out of places on Ladies’ Day at York Races. All the boys are wearing ties, something I guess you wouldn’t see these days.

There’s a vast spread of sandwiches, pies, cakes and buns and on one of the pictures my cousin Raymond is pulling a face as though he’s just bitten into something he didn’t like. I’ve just noticed he’s the only one not wearing a tie so that serves him right.

That phrase “I’ve only just noticed” keeps occurring as I gaze at the photos and maybe that’s why language can mirror thought more accurately than simply showing you the picture could. In other words, it seems to me that writing about the image can take the reader through the complex and ever-changing process of looking.

At the back of the picture are four women – my mother, my Auntie Winnie, my Auntie Mary and the auntie we just called Auntie. In fact Auntie Mary is the only one I’m related to. They’re wearing paper hats more or less elegantly apart from Auntie Winnie who isn’t wearing one at all and, yes, I’ve only just noticed that. Auntie has her eyes shut and her and Auntie Winnie are wearing brooches.

There’s a toy guitar on the settee and I can tell from his face that Brian Askew, Winnie’s lad, is dying to try and play it.

There’s so much more to see…

Here’s a thing. Find an old family photo and have a go at describing it in words.

Try and put us in the picture. Good luck!