How to Write Without Colour

How to Write Without Colour

As writers, we rely on our unique ability to convey the visual world in words. We conjure images in the minds of readers about lush green fields, grey, decaying buildings, or velvety red berries ripe for picking.

But how do you describe green when you’ve never actually seen green? How do you create words that move people when you don’t see the world the same way they do? How do you network and expand your business when you can’t make eye contact?

You think you’re writing project is hard? You think you’re having trouble finding your voice or meeting your goals? Welcome to my world.

I’m Steff, a legally blind writer and blogger. I have a rare genetic condition called achromotopsia. In your eye, you have two types of cells – rods and cones. Rods are sensitive to light levels, and cones contain photoreceptors to distinguish colors. My eyes contain no cone cells, so I cannot see color. It’s difficult to describe what I do see – richly varied shades of light and dark, or grey in all the colors of the rainbow.

Rod cells are extremely sensitive to light, so on bright days or when surrounded by white, I see the world like an over-exposed black and white film. I have poor depth perception, and nystagmus, which means my eyes blink and move around a lot. I focus out of the side of my eye, so when I talk to you, my eyes dart everywhere and I appear to be looking over your shoulder.

People frequently tell me they feel sorry for me – they couldn’t imagine a world without color. But I’ve never seen blue or green or red, so I don’t miss them. I’m never sad about what I can’t see, because that’s like being sad about the size or my ears or how many toes I have. They’re part of me, and I love experiencing the world in a completely unique way.

We’re all presented with unique challenges, and we define ourselves by how we choose to meet them.

As I write this, my nose is about 1cm from the computer screen (that’s 2/5 of an inch, for those of you who are imperially inclined). The colors have been reversed, so I see white letters on a black background. I work with the curtains closed and the lights off. Sometimes, I lean in a little to catch something, and smush my nose against the screen. Luckily, my Mac is very forgiving.

My writing challenges mostly involve finding workarounds for technology I can’t use, covering events when I can’t see what’s going on, and dealing with face-to-face meetings and networking where people find my eyes distracting and, occasionally, frightening (the heavy metal shirt and shifty eyes make one menacing combination).

With any challenge, I think the best thing to do is acknowledge it, make it hilarious, and find some way to use it in your writing. I write monthly columns on disability websites about the amusing things that happen to me. You’ve got to see the humor in these situations; otherwise you’ll drive yourself insane.

Your challenges might not have to do with computer screens giving you a headache or children hiding from you in fear or pouring tomato sauce on your ice cream instead of chocolate fudge. Whatever they are, imagine yourself telling a friend about them, but instead of complaining, you’re trying to make them laugh.

Develop an attitude. As a kid, I stood out for all the wrong reasons. I was bullied because of my eyesight, because I was a geek, because I liked weird clothes and loud music and stooped when I walked and never said the right thing.

Now, I still have wonky eyes and weird clothes and a strange walk and I still never say the right thing, but I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I don’t hide behind that person anymore – I walk up to a stranger and say “hi, I’m Steff, and I can’t look at you when you talk to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re awesome.”

I’m no Glenn Benton, but I decided it was time I acted a little more heavy metal. As a writer, you can’t be half-assed, you can’t be wishy-washy. Your words speak for you – so make every word count.

As writers, we’re eternally curious. Every day we enter worlds we would never experience in real life, and draw from them experiences and thoughts and feelings that anyone can relate to, and we use words to bring those worlds to life.

Even if you don’t know what green is, you can use your writer’s skills to bring green to life. I memorize the colors of objects – I’m always asking people around me to describe the colors they see. You learn so much by talking to people.

I know that grass is green, but, beyond that, I know that green grass is lush and fresh and soft underfoot, but grass that’s parched or sprayed or dying isn’t green at all – it’s brown. I build up an image in my mind, an image made of words – luscious, rich, fresh, new, soft, deep, life. And I can conjure green from my imagination.

That’s the true power of the words you write. You can help the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the disheartened to regain hope.

You too can imagine green.

A note from James: Having recently drawn a colour-blind person into my life, I’ve learned new appreciation for the fact that some people don’t see the world as we do… literally. I’ve had to drawn on my words to describe what I see to this person – I can’t just say, “Oh, the house with the green shutters,” anymore. I can only imagine the challenges these people face in daily life, so thank you to Steff for bringing this point to life so eloquently.

Post by Steff Metal

What can a blind metalhead chick teach you about finding your audience and kicking ass with your creative business? Steff Metal is a copywriter, blogger, and medieval swordfighter who believes every word you write should be worth fighting for.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Hi Steff ! after reading this my eyes are wet and have a smile on my face.. thank you so much for this inspirational post.

  2. Wow. What a moving piece.

    I know someone who has the kind of color blindness that makes red and green indistinguishable. It’s made me think twice about web design, but I hadn’t applied those lessons to my writing.

    Thank you so much for your insights and your inspirational words!

    • Hi Alexa. You’re definitely right about web-design, sometimes color-blind people have problems with combinations you wouldn’t expect. Because of my software, I see all websites as black with white writing, so I miss a lot of pretty design elements. But at least I get the words 🙂

  3. Ronald Sieber says:


    In my case, I sometimes wish I couldn’t see red, as that seems to be dominant in my so-called writing business.

    Your challenge gives us all pause. Thanks for stepping out and inspiring us!

    For me: back to writing, but with your story lighting my way…

    All the best, kiddo!

  4. Thanks Steff. Powerful words…and ideas. You’ve given us specific exercises to help our writing, but more importantly, our awareness and sensitivity to the unique gifts of others.

    I worked with a woman who was blind. She taught me so much. When we attended conferences, I was challenged to “describe” the nonverbal language of the group and read the PowerPoint presentations. Charts, pictures and cartoons–where the whole audience is laughing–made her feel left out. When I’m presenting or teaching I try to describe cartoons, charts or pictures. It takes practice, but is respectful. It also slows me down which is a good thing.

    Stephen King in his book, On Writing, encourages writers to kill the adjectives and adverbs. This was a strength my friend had cultivated without even knowing it.

    Best wishes Steff, you sound like you have a great attitude and much talent–though I do question your taste in Heavy Metal *smile*

    • Thank you Mary! “On Writing” is one of my favorite writing books. And don’t worry, I think my poor parents are still wondering what happened to their ten-year-old Spice Girls fan …

      My husband says being with me has changed a lot of his habits and made him super aware of the world. He’s a lot more careful about crossing the road now he’s got me in tow, and he has a great way of describing colors and things I can’t see. He’s also great at describing visual jokes in movies that I sometimes miss – he does it in such a way that it’s still funny, even if he has to explain it.

  5. Oh Steff…what a wonderful post. My aunt has been blind her entire life and it always amazes me when she describes something using a color i.e.her red shorts or a blue car that is picking her up. I have never been able to fully comprehend how it works for her but you made it understandable. She is an amazing woman at age 76 and never let anything stop her including college, work, music etc. Thanks so much for clearing up something that I have wondered about my entire life!

    • Thank you Diane! I know exactly what you mean – I work at a blindness organization making braille books and it always fascinated me how the people who worked there who’ve never actually seen use colors to identify objects, and also talk about “seeing” something, or say “I’ll look over there,”. It took me a week to realize it’s exactly what I do!

  6. HI Steff,
    You’re a terrific writer by the way, but I guess you know that. It intrigues me how every disability brings a gift. Sometimes you have to search for it, but it is always there. You have just given all of us readers the opportunity to be thankful for what we take for granted and to look at our world differently.

    If you are searching for meaning, you already are living it.

  7. I enjoy, and attempt to write, speculative fiction that hinges on unusual ways of sensing the world around us. Your post here has given me rare insight that will help me write better as I explore this rich vein.
    And it would be an honor to meet you on the field of medieval combat. 😉

    Grace and strength to you, Steff!

    • And you, Nic! The novel I’m writing at the moment has a blind POV character. It’s interesting even for me to learn to experience the world through his senses.

      One day, our swords shall cross …

  8. I’m an artist who works strictly in black and white. I love it because the mind creates its own colors, so each viewer’s experience is different and uniquely his own. I also think it allows a better appreciation of the details and meanings often obscured by color.

    Thanks, Steff, great post.


    • Hi Carole – that’s really interesting! I’m drawn to really high-contrast artwork – often black/white with a little bit of red or another colour, I think because it’s the easiest thing to appreciate. You can focus on the patterns, the way your eye moves around the piece, I think.

  9. Wow, Steff. We should all write as though we were color blind, deaf and senseless, because we all experience life differently from others. That’s why we write. That’s why we use our words to paint colors and sounds and tastes. If not, why bother? Great stuff. Thanks for waking me up today.

  10. Steff, YOU are awsome. You gave us your very own rainbow, thank you 🙂
    And I loved this line – in fact, I’m going to put it on a post-it the next time I feel hesitant about my copy:
    “As a writer, you can’t be half-assed, you can’t be wishy-washy. Your words speak for you – so make every word count.”

    • Thank you Patricia! Whenever I feel something I’ve written isn’t coming across right – I give it to my husband to read. He’s a brutally honest editor and will hand it back to me and say. “I’m not convinced. Go and do it again.” He’s trained the no half-assery into me 🙂

  11. Hi Steff,

    Stephey at Marked by the Muse posted your spectacular article on my FB wall. I am delighted to know about you and look forward to learning more through your insightful views.
    Hide A Heart

  12. Jurie Schoeman says:

    Hi Steff – totally awesome in every aspect of the word. I salute and admire you!

  13. She rocks!

  14. Wow … this was an inspiring post! It will push me to become a better writer and move beyond my five senses.

  15. Hi Steff!

    Way to go on learning to work around your condition. I’m not a visually sensitive person. I don’t notice visual details. And I only remember really bright colours. I can’t tell you what someone I saw ten seconds ago was wearing unless it was really odd.

    It’s not the same, but it’s something I have to work on in my writing. My predisposition to noticing people and action and not things, makes me prone to not writing description.

  16. Wow Steff, you’re truly a talented writer. Not just because of the words you write, but because of the things you overcome on a daily basis – things that the rest of us take for granted. Thank you so much for sharing this aspect of yourself with us 🙂

  17. Wow! This is definitely extraordinary and inspirational. I hope you continue on this path that you started. What do all people say, it ain’t life if you don’t have any challenges. Wishing you all the best.


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