When jazz/fusion innovator Billy Cobham composed his 1974 masterpiece “Crosswinds,” he imagined its songs “capturing nature through the eye of a lens.” Cobham termed his concept “sound portraits” and developed the idea from his earlier experiences as a drummer with Miles Davis, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

Cobham’s vision easily translates into what authors might consider “word portraits.” Think of those as an effort to weave descriptions of your characters and their surroundings into wonderful, inspiring tapestries that create your own masterpiece as seen through the lens of your readers. 

Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” is an outstanding biography of U.S. military advisor John Paul Vann and his mercurial defense and later condemnation of the Vietnam War. The book begins with Vann’s funeral after his 1972 death in a helicopter crash as the war wound down in the Southeast Asian nation. Sheehan describes the participants in the service and paints a striking portrait of William Colby, a senior CIA operative who went on to become director of the agency.

“The pallbearer who walked behind Westmoreland was a civilian, a slim, erect man in a navy-blue suit. He wore glasses with clear plastic frames that added a further touch of plainness to his pinched and undistinguished features. One had to notice the unusual steadiness of the myopic pale blue eyes behind the glasses to sense the sternness in this man’s character. … Had William Colby been born in the sixteenth century, his character and mindset might have led him into the Society of Jesus and a life of Jesuit soldier of the Counter-Reformation. Having been born in the twentieth, he joined the CIA and became a soldier of the Cold War.”

In one paragraph, Sheehan presents a portrait of a man who perfectly fit his role in an appalling American tragedy and in a governmental agency that oversaw much of the deadly miscalculation in Vietnam. 

The first page of Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” offers a beautiful portrait of the tree outside Francie Nolan’s house.

“The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seeds fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree which grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.”

Smith’s wonderful description sets up a comparably engaging passage in which the tree’s affection for the tenements and their poor residents becomes clear and distinct.

As a bonus in this post, we offer the link below to Cobham’s “Crosswinds” in the hope it provides inspiration for your “word portraits.”


Fran Allred and Mickey Johnson are the owners of We Edit Books in Huntington, W.Va. They have a combined 65 years’ experience as newspaper and book editors in West Virginia and across the South and Midwest. Reach them at weeditbooks.com and [email protected].