Writing and reading for pleasure – A picture is worth a thousand words | Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham continues his series of articles on writing and reading for pleasure. 


A picture is worth a thousand words

The adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. It also aptly characterises one of the main goals of visualisation, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly.

The expression: “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand word.” appears in a 1911 newspaper article quoting newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane discussing journalism and publicity.

A similar phrase: “One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words” appears in a 1913 newspaper advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio.

An early use of the exact phrase appears in a 1918 newspaper advertisement for the San Antonio Light. One of the Nation’s Greatest Editors Says:

“One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”

Whilst drafting my proposed Waterstones post promised in my Advent post last month, I purchased a 2015 edition of a selection of old Giles Cartoons. I chuckled when I saw the subtitles elaborating on the subject of each cartoon and I realised even my memory has faded to recall all the events in Giles‘s wonderful social history expressed in his cartoons. My Waterstones post is taking longer to complete than expected. Instead this month, I offer all of you my thoughts about words and pictures.


Recall in Pictures

In my efforts to improve my writing I realise I do try to reverse engineer the saying One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words by writing a page or three at a time, 300 to 1000 words, to create pictures and memories in the mind of my readers and also to provide pleasure to me as writer and reader of my own work.

Whilst looking back over my million draft words I often gasp and think “did I write that?” Sometimes I think it is brilliant and sometimes I think it is poor and I can either improve or discard it. Unfortunately my habit is to discard little… “When are you going to get the house straight?” I hear the cry from my wife downstairs as she trips over another box of newspaper cuttings in the process of being sorted.

When I think back to 2014 and to the books I have read on my best reads list, I recall memories in pictures and scenes and not the 300 to 1000 words or exact text of the various scenes. I assume you do the same?

Amongst all the disturbing images of war and destruction and bad events recalled in the various media reviews of 2014 and my recall of my own activities various images spring to mind.

  • The Tour de France in Yorkshire, England; amazing with good weather to light up the scenery and great crowd support!
  • The large men’s size 13 shoe box containing drafts of my novella booklets making up my 1,000,000 draft words. I keep looking at this box with some disappointment at how small a physical volume (in Arial 12 point) my hundreds if not thousands of hours of writing effort have produced.
  • Last July I saw an A380 Jumbo Jet flying on my first visit to the Farnborough Air Show. The crowd line is surprisingly close to the runway. The aircraft registration was “F WWOW”… how appropriate. I think about the incremental progress made in flight back to the beginnings of jet airliners in the late 1940s and my father being born before the Wright brothers. He saw progress from the Wright brothers until his death about the time of the moon landing in 1969.


On a visit last summer to the Mosquito and De Havilland Museum at South Mimms, off the London M25 I took a photo of a picture of two DH106 Comet airliners under construction. Many thousands of words could be written about the picture and the following events in jet aircraft history.


I found the whole experience quite emotional… the tragedies of life experienced by Sir Geoffrey De Havilland with his love and enthusiasm for aviation through the loss of two sons, wife and the losses of several DH106 Comets and the DH110 at Farnborough. The problematic rectangular windows can be seen clearly in the photo. Apparently, this museum for old aircraft is the oldest in the UK and in my view well worth a visit. This snapshot of history of the Comet under construction has all the hopes and aspirations of people at the time doing pioneering work and underpinning the amazing commercial aviation industry we use today for business and leisure.

Every time I look up and see the plan view of the underside of an Airbus 320 or a Boeing 737 jet approaching Birmingham Airport, I think back to the Comet. Their fuselages may be wider, wings smaller, and the engines are hanging outside their wing structure, but the basic shape conceived in the 1940s is still the same. A friend of mine knows a design engineer at Boeing who tells the story about a meeting with a surgeon who spouted at great length about his life and death job operating on people. The design engineer said quietly “if you make a mistake, one person dies, whereas if I make a mistake 400 can die.”

My recall of fiction books I read and enjoyed in 2014 from Cormaran Strike and Robin Ellacott in The Silkworm through to the electric treatment near the end of Pat Barker’s Regeneration is in pictures in my mind and not the words.

The image of the soldier leaving the nurse behind in Dennis Wheatley’s Bill for the Use of a Body is as vivid today as it was when I read the book in my twenties.

However, my memories of the Ranulph Fiennes’ book, The Sett, are related to feelings and not pictures of the main character Alex Goodman with me trembling in his shoes.

Already in 2015, there are many images in my mind from 2014 acquired while reading several books about the construction of the WW2 Burma to Siam railway are being reawakened by the descriptions in The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

I gifted this Man Booker prize winning book in 2014 to myself as a Christmas present. If I had to take the deliberate decision to read the first 50 pages, maybe I would not have carried on. I do try and pass 100 pages before discarding most books and the reading after 100 pages is becoming quite rewarding. Like my own writing, the author is flitting around between periods of time and places. If he can get a book prize doing this then perhaps I too may be on the right path. Despite hearing from the cover designer on BBC Radio about how good her cover of the book is, and wondering about the title of the book, I have my doubts on both as selling factors. Richard Flanagan has created several vivid pictures, including one of a haunting picture of stakes in the ground marking the proposed route of the impossible railway disappearing off into the distance. Another picture focuses on the importance of necks to a psychopathic Japanese Corporal. Flanagan has also elaborated on the mindset of the Japanese and why they built the railway. I read on and expected more graphic pictures to emerge. By the way, the punctuation, text spacing, lack of dialogue, and inverted commas in the book would give my professional editors and copy editors kittens! There are also more typo errors than I would have expected in a bestseller. As my old English master might have said, “Dropping standards, what are things coming to next?”


Screen Viewing Related to Writing

Gary Smailes of Bubblecow recommended two books in an old post of his and it’s pretty helpful to authors. He talks about the retention of the viewer’s interest and the importance of story, particularly from a screenwriter’s perspective. The books are Robert Mckee’s Story and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

Christmas is a time of year when I watch more films on TV than normal. The words and pictures were especially interesting this year.

The best programme for me was one which featured Julie Walters. She described her film and TV series roles illustrated with various clips. Certainly this represented much food for thought and reinforcement of old picture memories of scenes from Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls and Educating Rita. For some reason I had either not seen or had forgotten the classic Two Soups comedy scene and I am currently shaking with laughter as I recall it again. It is up there with the best of British TV comedy Fawlty Towers. I am sure the scene read directly from the script in words is just as good as it appeared in pictures.

I watched a Hitchcock film from the 1930s, The Lady Vanishes (1938) which rather showed its age, but the pre-WW2 railway train sequences were interesting. Looking at a list of Hitchcock films, I realise he made over 50 — an amazing achievement.

Often during each week I flick between TV channels and find regular repeats of Bond, Terminator and Bourne films. On the 4th January, I watched the last hour of the Bourne Ultimatum. The Jason Bourne character and Matt Damon’s acting to me is great. Perhaps there is too much violence, but no direct sex compensates. However, Julia Stiles spoke volumes in her eyes and facial expression like she did in the earlier films. Detailed plot is quite hard to follow at times. This is where a written text scores over pictures and spoken dialogue especially because one can go back and re-read it.

Off the back of the Bourne films, I watched The Good Shepherd with Matt Damon and found myself struggling with the plot, the hard to hear spoken dialogue, and the film in general. Here are some writing lessons. In a multi time-based story the characters really do need to look (be described) in a different age. The women in the film all looked similar, so when they reappeared later, one had to tune in to previous connections. I also watched a film based on an Eric Roth book. I have not read any of Roth’s books and may not if the film is representative of his work. I had to go onto the Internet to get a full understanding of the plot! This confirmed that I had understood the overall idea of a person committed to the State above everything else… perhaps the film presentation was too subtle for simple me. Apparently the book is based on an actual person and, if so, the lawyers may have been busy!

At the other extreme I tuned into Seven Brides for Seven Hoods for a few minutes. A great cast: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, but oh dear, they seemed to be reading the film dialogue like a radio story — all very dated.


Planning in Pictures

The other day I came across my Writing Business Plan from October 2013 to 2014, and I recalled pictures of scenes at Burger King described by Barry J Gibbons.

Yes, I did complete my million draft words in January 2014 and I did quite a lot of web posting and even improved the quality of my writing skills and output. However, I have failed on many other tasks including further self-publishing as a way of promotion. My one unplanned publishing success in 2014 was the inclusion of a letter I wrote to the editor of the Daily Telegraph about HS2 in What Will They Think of Next.

I am quite chuffed about this because someone independent has published in book form some of my writing. Perhaps it is one small step…

The one idea I had which was not on the October 2013 business plan was my decision to write and read for pleasure as a new first priority after completion of my million draft words. Looking at many other posts by commentators over the New Year about writing and publishing and the self-publishing marketplace, I am pleased publishing is a secondary aim in my writing plans. I feel for those of you who are in the middle of the self-publishing process. I still have warm feelings about YPS, one of the small band of independent self-publishing services survivors who helped me publish Ywnwab! An Autumn Story-Book in 2013.

One of my draft books is made up of pictures I have extracted from my daily read of newspaper and magazines where I attempt to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end about what I see in the picture. I have found this quite fun because there is often so much more in any picture than can be absorbed at first glance. The thousand words do need some finding! The classic to me in this genre is Neil Macgregor’s BBC radio series A History of the World in a Hundred objects. Also, I commend his diction to many current and well known actors.

Various pictures come back to me from old films while I am writing this post.

  • The opening scenes in Dr Zhivago 1965 with earth being shovelled into an open grave. Writing the scene up would be an interesting exercise. I will have to look in the book.
  • The scene at the well in Lawrence of Arabia 1962 with Omar Sharif.
  • The Shawshank Redemption (film) contained so many pictures to write about, I really must read Stephen King’s book this year. This is resolution number one, apart from the usual lost causes of trying to improve my hand writing and playing the piano. I ordered King’s book on 7th January, so this a good start. I saw the Constant Gardener and Atonement and read the books afterwards. The picture from the film helped me through the dense reading of the Constant Gardener.


Writing Resolutions

The last section moves me on to writing and reading resolutions for 2015.

  • To continue Writing and Reading for Pleasure.
  • To complete my final versions of the books making up my million draft words. My initial optimism to do all this in three years (and even doing this in 2015) may be many steps too far. Like my decorating and home repairs, I have to admit to you that finishing is not a strong personal characteristic of mine! Maybe setting a high bar will also produce more problems than setting a low bar. Unfortunately, many more hours will not make the contents of the shoe box much larger, only perhaps of better quality.
  • I want to manage all my writing paperwork, and in particular the newspaper paper cuttings and old printed drafts. Am I brave enough just to put the whole box out for recycling? Probably not… If ever I become a bestselling author, some researcher might want to analyse how all this came about… then pigs might fly!


Postscript – thoughts from a picture

Henry thought more about the quotation from Stephen King and found he could not fault the logic of the statement. He also dreamed of writing with his old Conway Stewart ink pen on a lined pad rather than his communicator. The old rubber ink container, used for Quink ink from their oval bottles, now long perished and the plastic ink cartridges even if available would probably not fit. Would the gold nib be worth much given the current price of gold? 

Perhaps Henrietta would not be able to read his handwriting and certainly he would not be able to read her shorthand if he dictated his writing. He had tried dictating his stories but they came out differently to what he wanted.  

Henry recalled his ink pot holders in the small desk he shared with David Tee at school. He would prefer a mahogany coloured desk top rather than the beige colour in the picture … a ‘Spark’s colour’ in his mind. 

Who is this Douglas Burcham?… probably someone who thinks he might be a bestselling author sometime. 


Next post – February, and with a reading theme.

Hopefully, it will be Waterstones with a large dreamy Christmas Book token in monetary value to spend — so much better than an e book.


DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes.

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