Friday, July 6, 2012

Writing without Visual Aids: Can you do it?

Today's guest blogger reminded me about an important part of the writing process: being descriptive. When we write, we want everything to be clear for the reader. They should be able to visualize without ever seeing a real picture of what you are talking about. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes…well, it can be difficult! Ferina Santos took on the challenge of trying to write about applying makeup without any visual aids for the reader to go by. It's a unique challenge and one every writer should try whether it be about make up or something else! Welcome, Ferina!


Writing About Writing About Applying Makeup Without Visual Supplements: Is It Possible?

Write About Writing About Applying … What?

From time to time every writer is given the gift of an opportunity to write a crazy idea. This is one: to write about writing about applying makeup under the premise that no illustrations will be available to help guide a reader as to how to apply makeup. As long as I will not blabber on writing about the application of makeup itself, this crazy idea was welcome. I just needed to tell someone how to write about writing about the application of makeup without illustrations being available. That is, there would be no “Refer to Illustration A” type of instructions. So, here goes…

Writing for the Blind

Hoping for some insight, I punched Google with “writing for the blind” and, with only an admittedly cursory perusal, I could find no real theory articles on the art of writing for the blind. I did see a number of articles regarding contractions and short-form words that should be used or avoided because of the conventions of Braille. So, finding no “eureka,” I finally realized that I was perhaps heading down a blind alley, since both the writer and the reader would probably be sighted in spite of the fact that no illustrations would be available. At least a mirror would be available to the final reader. The process wouldn’t be a blind-leading-the-blind sort of exercise. I think …

Describing Technical Processes

Though I have been writing ever since I learned to hold on to a pencil, I am neither a writing theoretician nor a linguist of the writing arts. I have written a number of how-to articles or makeup tutorials, but almost always with the benefit of illustrations. I certainly know that a picture’s worth a thousand words. My next Google search posed “describing technical processes” and I wasn’t given much more than what I already know. I have done my share of writing to describe how to tie a shoe or put on lipstick without benefit of illustration – in class and in real life. It ain’t easy and it ain’t fun. It’s tedious. But wait …

Acute Observation, Delicate Questioning, Precise Translation

An art exists in technical writing. Applying makeup is an art that requires technique. No matter how girly-girly the use of makeup may be seen, it is indeed a technical art as much as sculpting or glass-blowing or painting is. It requires some precision and some artful use of tools. So, it must take an artist to describe an artistic process. The artiste to do this is the technical writer. That writer must have at least three highly-honed skills:

     Acute Observation
Divide the skill sets and pay careful step-by-step attention to each. You don’t want to do a little on the eyebrows and then jump to the application of the lip liner and then smudging on a little blush. Do eyes, lips, cheeks, and peripheral facial surfaces each in their turn. Pay close attention to what is going on during each step. If you feel you have missed something, ask the makeup artist to repeat the step, if only by mimicking, until you are sure of exactly what has been done. Watch the tools carefully and how they are used.

     Delicate Questioning
Never stop asking questions. Ask for the name of the tools. Ask if there is a term that is generally understood by a lay audience. “Squinch up your eyes.” might be an acceptable phrase in a makeup instructional book. Ask for relative measurements. Perhaps an acceptable instruction would be: “Start the eyebrows at the edges of your three middle fingers placed on the brow at the top of the nose.” Never stop asking until the precision is laid out and easily understandable to yourself and the operator, too. “What if I said it this way: …?” is a terribly important question. The makeup artist knows clients better than you do and understands how to communicate with clients. The operator is your expert. Ask, ask, ask.

     Precise Translation
Now the heavy stuff falls onto the writer. As said earlier, no illustrations are available. It is up to the writer to translate each and every movement, each and every technique, the divulgence of secrets and tips, the use of relative measurements, the precise use of each and every tool, into a language that the user can understand and apply – AND APPLY USEFULLY. The translation must be methodical and precise. Use of language must be as deft and as artistic as the moves of the makeup operator employing his or her techniques.

Test the Writing with an Eyebrow Pencil

Aside from the fact that you’ve probably couched your writing in the present simple passive voice, does it really work? Grab a girlfriend and have her sit down in front of a mirror and watch how she does while she reads your writing and applies her makeup using your words. Of course, have all tools and materials required. Take note of all problems and all the unforeseen results of your words. How awful does she look when she’s finished? Start the process over as far back as seems necessary.

Think about the Lowest Common Consumer

Having no pictures on which to rely requires communication precision and careful testing. This is not a job for every writer. And don’t expect every customer to be satisfied. After all, when you have to put tags on blow dryers warning users not to operate them while in a shower or a tub, you have to figure that you’re going to be dealing with some pretty low common denominators when it comes to users of your instructional makeup text. Keep that in mind as you write as well.

You Can Write about Applying Makeup – or Anything – sans Illustrations

While this is not a comprehensive text on how to write about writing about makeup without benefit of illustration, it should give you some idea of the challenges you might face. This primer can be used for many other forms of instructional writing that must be done sans illustrations. And just as with makeup, if the first try doesn’t look or work quite right, you can always wash your face and try again to be beautifully useful. Or better yet, go ask me for makeup tips… but that’s another story.

Ferina Santos is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia's provider of makeup and writing courses. A feisty, 20 year-old nerd at heart with an obsession for vanity, she captures all her random musings with daily photographs in her blog, A Pink Banana. When not online, she can be found reading a book or riding with her horses, while fantasizing she’s a real-life Khaleesi.


  1. What a great exercise! Thanks for the valuable lesson.

    1. You're welcome! While you're at it, it wouldn't hurt to actually play around with makeup :)

  2. Makeup is fun! I just always mess it up!

    1. Oh but messing up leads to discoveries! Well, for me. It's always better to keep an open mind that way, I wouldn't have known if bold lips looked good on me if I didn't goof around with my Mama's lipsticks. :)

  3. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing how to go about writing about applying makeup and cosmetics. It may be helpful in the event you're in a pinch and you want to change your look.