Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last four years sitting next to graphic designers, watching them work, collaborating on projects, marveling at the beauty of what they make. I am jealous of their talents.
Writing is not a visual medium. You cannot hang your latest blog post on the wall or post an impactful, flashy photo of it on Instagram. For anyone to get any joy out of your work, they have to sit down and read it. And odds are, they’re just going to glance at the headline or, at best, skim.
Writers have no way to pack that immediate feeling of awe and beauty into a single second the way a visual artist can. I guess that’s why they say a picture is worth 1,000 words.
Envy has led me to education. I’d like to express myself both visually and in writing, so with fluctuating degrees of seriousness, I’ve spent the last year studying graphic design. I still have a long way to go, but I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable with my limited skills.
And while I realize not every writer dreams of creating logos or posters or t-shirts, design is not a worthless pursuit. I’ve discovered a few aspects of the design process that can help any writer grow.
Designers hoard inspiration.
There are millions of beautiful websites that can feed a designer’s creative spirit — designspiration, dribbble, and panda, to name a few. And beyond the Internet, the stuff of life can serve as inspiration too — the typography on a sign, the shape of a building, the color of a package.
Designers mentally and physically add these tidbits to their toolboxes for future use. They freely borrow and remix elements in their work, and those artistic choices define their style.
Writers can be visually inspired as well, but the oft-quoted advice is that to become a great writer one must first become a great reader. Books, magazines, and blog posts are our patches, logos, and fonts.
Reading fills our toolbox with different linguistic styles, new vocabulary, novel approaches. And while I’ve been a bit delinquent lately, I keep a commonplace book to save quotes and ideas from books I’ve read over the last few years.
Like a designer, the goal isn’t to copy and paste, but to use those bits and pieces as inspiration, as the spark for our own ideas.
With the proliferation of programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, it’s easier than ever to create art without ever picking up a pencil. And yet, it’s still quicker and more effective to test a visual idea with a rough sketch before moving to the computer.
At the beginning of the writing process, we should be treating our words like hastily scribbled sketches as well. The first sentence we write probably won’t make it to the final draft unaltered. So don’t be afraid to make the first mark.
I have a document full of scrap sentences, like this one:
She yawned. Saliva stretched between her teeth like spider webs.
I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if I’ll ever use it. It just popped into my head and I thought, “Well that’s interesting,” so I jotted it down.
It’s a rough sketch. It’s in no way final. It’s just a jumping off point.
Designers save past iterations.
If you’ve ever looked at someone’s Illustrator artboard right before they export their final design, you’ll see an insane, serial-killer-esque jumble of past concepts, discarded shapes, and unused color swatches.
Designers keep all the steps of their process intact — they never know when something thrown out in version 3 will come back in version 14.
Word processing programs make it easy (and encourage) writers to overwrite their previous work — to type a new sentence on top of an old one, thereby eliminating (forever) a previous version.
When I submit a first draft, it often has “_v2” at the end of the filename. Why? Because “_v1” is just for me. It’s a collage of chaff. It’s full of the same sentence or paragraph rewritten dozens of times as I try to find exactly the right words or structure.
Rather than continually writing over past work, I hit “return” and then write it all out again. I never know when something I wrote 4 paragraphs ago will be useful in the future.
Digital paper is free! There’s no reason to delete anything. Unlike physical hoarding, digital hoarding is to be welcomed, not discouraged.
When you look at a final logo or poster, you can’t see all of the resources and effort that went into creating it. But if you can get a designer to open up about their process, they’re able to clearly connect the dots — from sources of inspiration and past versions to the final work.
I know far fewer writers who are able to do the same.
Writers are eager to overwrite past work. We’re oblivious to our sources of inspiration. We like to believe that the first draft is the final version.
While the impact is less immediate, writing can be even more powerful than an image, if someone takes the time to read 1,000 words.
But in producing those 1,000 words, it would benefit us writers to work more like designers along the way.