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Painting Pictures with Words

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 by Chris

I am a “word” person, as opposed to a “picture” person. I can use words to describe a beautiful thing that I have seen, but in spite of years of effort, I can’t take a decent photo that captures what I can see in my mind’s eye—and forget about sketching or painting.

I am the child of a father who was a professional photographer, and a mother who painted for fun, and they managed to have three children who between them can’t draw a stick figure to save their lives. Go figure. I’ll stick to the words, thank you.

I thought about the words vs. pictures battle the other day when listening to photographer Annie Leibovitz on NPR, talking about her new book Pilgrimage, which features photos from her journeys to places of personal importance to her. Leibovitz admits during the interview that she struggles to describe her work—she lets the pictures speak for her, since words don’t flow as easily. In the interview, she credits writer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the book’s introduction, for placing the intensely vivid and intimate photos into context. Goodwin: words. Leibovitz: pictures.

Which brings me, finally, to Wordle.net. This brilliant little web tool (its creator actually calls it a “toy”) generates “word clouds” when you paste in text. Here, for example, is the word cloud for this blog post:

I love how Wordle transforms visually uninteresting text into something quite pretty. And it’s surprising to see which words are given prominence, and how they relate to each other in ways I’d never have thought of.

You can use Wordle for more workaday tasks, like getting a visual representation of words you tend to overuse in your writing, or which phrases and keywords will make for good SEO terms. But for a “word” person like me, the greatest benefit of Wordle is its ability to transform language into a small piece of art.

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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