We often tell our students that effective writing “paints pictures in the mind.” Because today’s students are such sophisticated connoisseurs of visual media, we might expect them to be experts at this kind of word painting. But in fact, the opposite may be true. Because kids are bombarded with images everywhere they turn, they may actually have less ability to conjure images in their heads—via their imagination—than kids in previous generations. So how can we help them build this capacity? In my classes teaching middle school and high school students, I employ a number of strategies to cultivate students’ abilities to see pictures in their minds and then produce them in writing on the page.

Strong Verbs and Concrete Nouns to the Rescue

One of the first things I impress upon my students is the value of strong verbs and concrete nouns. Young writers often mistakenly think that piling on the adjectives is the key to vivid writing. Well-chosen adjectives certainly have their place, but vague adjectives like nice, funny, smart, and mad are bland and don’t paint pictures in the mind, no matter how many of them kids include.

For my first writing lesson of the year, I write the following sentence on the board:

The student was happy.

At first, students insist that this is a vivid sentence. But we soon discover that each student is seeing something different in his or her mind, though not what I intended them to see.

Next, I write this sentence on the board:

The seventh-grader bounded into the classroom, grinned from ear to ear, high-fived his lab partner, and announced, “I just aced my Spanish test!”

I point out the concrete nouns—seventh-grader, classroom, ear, lab partner—and strong verbs—bounded, grinned, high-fived, announced. Students agree this sentence creates a much brighter word picture.

After this demonstration, I write several more lifeless sentences on the board (most feature the verb to be), and students assist me in rewriting them vividly. Try this activity with your students and see what happens. If they’re anything like mine, they’ll discover that writing vividly is fun!

Find more strategies by David Lee Finkle to help your students’ writing come alive:

Teaching Students to Make Writing Visual & Vivid


Writing Extraordinary Essays: Every Middle Schooler Can!