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Choosing Color Words When Writing

You have been working on concreteness. Your student is excited to discover a world of new words in his thesaurus and WriteShop word lists. As a parent, you want to allow him to flex his creative muscles, yet you want to guide him so he learns to choose suitable words. This article focuses on picking just the right color words. With so many tempting choices, your eager yet sometimes immature writer may be using color words that—well—do not exactly work.

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Molly, in Lesson 2, describes her golden retriever. She says: “Murphy has long buttercup fur with an eggshell undercoat.”

Is this a wise use of color words? Using her Color Words list as a guide, Molly chose buttercup to describe the golden-yellow color of Murphy’s fur and eggshell for his off-white undercoat. While we need to applaud this student for stretching her vocabulary, we must also encourage her to choose words that suit her topic. Since Murphy is a golden retriever, Molly probably wanted to steer clear of using the word golden as a color word to describe his yellow fur (and avoid a repeated word). However, just because buttercup is a synonym for yellow does not make it a good choice! Molly has some options:

1. There is nothing wrong with using a plain and simple color word! “Murphy has long yellow fur…”

2. Instead of calling Murphy a golden retriever, Molly can simply refer to him as a retriever. This gives her the freedom to say: “Murphy has long golden fur…,” thus avoiding a repeated word.

3. Sometimes a color word does not work all by itself (“Murphy has long camel fur…”). But if you add the word “colored,” it makes more sense. “Murphy has long camel-colored fur

4. Similarly, she could say: “Murphy’s long fur, the color of straw, feels silky and smooth.”

You can see that #3 and #4 allow the writer to use words that might not otherwise be able to stand alone. Eggshell undercoat would fall into this area, sounding much better as eggshell-colored undercoat. Here is another example. For Lesson 5, Justin wants to describe chocolate chip bar cookies. He writes: “The thick sandy dough, filled with crunchy walnuts and mahogany chips, rises as it bakes.” Describing a food requires using appetizing adjectives. Although sandy is a synonym for light brown, it brings to mind the gritty texture of sand. Even sandy-brown dough does not sound too appealing. And mahogany is better suited for describing the color of wood or skin than for describing chocolate chips. So what can you suggest? Instead of sandy, a more appetizing word like golden-brown sounds much tastier! And it may not be necessary to describe the color of the chocolate chips at all. Justin, in his revised sentence could say: “The thick golden-brown dough, filled with crunchy walnuts and dark (or rich or semisweet) chips, rises as it bakes.”

Rather than simply handing your students a more “correct” word to use, have a discussion about color words to help them think through their ideas:

  • Which of these greens are light? Which are dark? Which greens are jungle colors? Ocean colors?
  • Which of these blues could describe a sky? A pair of pants? Your sister’s eyes?

  • Which synonym for “white” would best describe a cloud? Pale skin? A picket fence?

Encourage your students to use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar synonyms—it is important that they use new words correctly! For example, hot coals or embers may glow red, but would maroon be a suitable synonym? Probably not. Maroon is listed as a synonym for red, but Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it as dark brownish red. Cerulean may be a shade of blue, but does your child know that cerulean is sky-blue and not navy or periwinkle? Learning the definition of unfamiliar synonyms is good practice not only with color words, but with any new words students encounter.

Here is another mistake students often make with colors: using too many unusual color words in a given sentence or paragraph. While one or two interesting synonyms add pizzazz, overuse of uncommon words makes a composition sound wordy and unnatural. Once in a while they can pepper their writing with a bright new color word like nutmeg or aquamarine, but remember that there is nothing wrong with using the common, everyday color names like brown, green, and red.

As your students progress in WriteShop, helping them choose appropriate color words is just one way to teach discernment while encouraging concreteness. Questions about color words or other writing concerns? Just e-mail us!

Kim Kautzer and Debbie Oldar are the authors of WriteShop, and incremental writing program for grades 6-12. For more information about WriteShop, visit their website at

Copyright © 2004 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Kim Kautzer

Kim is a veteran homeschooler, author, and conference speaker. Kim loves to help parents feel more confident about teaching writing. With a heart to inspire and equip apprehensive parents, Kim encourages homeschoolers that teaching writing is much more objective than they think, and that with the right tools at their fingertips they can lead and motivate their struggling writers. Award-winning WriteShop, her unique and successful writing program, has been honored as one of Cathy Duffy’s 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum. Kim and her husband Jim homeschooled for 15 years. Two of their three children have graduated from Christian universities, and their son is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in theology. The Kautzers enjoy their passel of grandchildren and their sometimes-empty nest in Southern California. Kim blogs about writing at

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  1. Jennifer

    You guys really helped me a lot. I’m trying to start abstract art. I used to paint as a kid. I like putting narratives with my pictures. The one I’m working on now is Eve with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It helped me to decide the colors for my narrative. Thank you so much. Please feel free to send anything. I really enjoy doing this and your website was awesome. Thanks, Jennifer Reid

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