Let’s Write That CRAP

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

Serdar and I often discuss the way writing is improved by drawing on anything but writing.  I’d like to share a recent insight I had regarding using graphic design and writing.

Graphic arts are a hobby of mine – and vital for my writing career so I can make the kind of covers I want.  I’ve been putting more time into my skills because they are fun, because of my writing, and because it’s also useful in my career.  One of the best sources is The Non-Designer’s Design Book by creator Robin Williams, which I returned to as a refresher.

Williams sums up good design in the enjoyably shameless CRAP acronym.  Anything from book covers to business cards has four traits – Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.  These traits of good visual design made me wonder – do they apply to good writing?

Let’s explore.


Good graphic design means that there are stark differences that stand out.  The similar should be similar, and the different should be very different.

When it comes to writing, contrast is very important.  Fiction requires us to know the differences among characters, places, and things – in fact to feel them viscerally.  Non-fiction needs to be bundled up in a way where you get distinct information – a muddle isn’t going to let you find what you need.

A surprising amount of writing is making sure things aren’t the same.  Like, say, these sections . . .


Good visual elements – colors, shapes, and so on – have to repeat in graphic design.  A book cover should have the same fonts for different text (unless you’re using that for contrast).  A good logo might use lines of the same thickness.

Writing also requires repetition.  Fiction requires restating certain things so the reader “gets” them – like a character’s personal habits or traits.  Non-fiction can require everything from similarly formatted timelines to repetitive elements like exercises or summaries of each chapter.  Examine your own writing, and you might find some things you think of as repeating aren’t boring, but are a good idea.

Writing is repetitious.  Hey, notice how these sections are also repeating a format . . .


Good graphic design has elements that align with other elements, giving them a kind of connection.  Business cards don’t place text willy-nilly, but are carefully aligned with each other for ease of reading.  Take a look at good movie posters and notice how titles, taglines, cast information, etc. usually have alignment that makes them visually pleasing.

First, let’s talk fiction writing.  Good plotlines need to have elements aligned so you can tell a story, and many fiction stories have a kind of symmetry.  Some authors carefully size chapters and scenes so they’re about the right size to keep pace and keep reader interest.  I’m sure if you write fiction you know that sensation of seeing it in your head – and a good story has alignment of many elements.

In non-fiction, writing also requires alignment.  You have to put information in the right order of a chapter so people learn the right lessons.  Chapters need to align, going in the right order to lead people through what you want to teach them.  These alignments may also repeat, as our friend repetition appears.

You’ll see this post has (mostly) aligned sections.  This one went a bit longer, but let’s call that Contrast . . .


The CRAP acronym’s final lesson is Proximity, a simple but oft forgot lesson of good design – related elements should be close together.  A business card probably has a person’s title right under their name.  A book with many authors probably lists the author’s names together as, well, they’re the authors.  Proximity says “this is related.”

Of course in writing proximity matters as you usually put related stuff next to each other.  A plot has scenes happen in a kind of order – even if you’re pulling a Rashomon and people have to guess the order themselves.  Non-fiction obviously groups similar things as that’s how you inform people.  As a writer, you’re probably using Proximity without even thinking about it.

And we see proximity here, in, of course, these sections along with opening and closing.

Looking back on that fun little analysis, I think it was a worthwhile metaphor to explore.  Taking CRAP and seeing what it might tell us about writing helped me think about both design and writing.  All from picking up a book from my past to refresh some lessons.

So what kind of metaphors are in your life that might help your writing?  Let me challenge you to find one and write about it – and share it with me.

Steven Savage

AI: Same As We Never Admitted It Was

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

(I’d like to discuss Large Language Models and their relatives – the content generation systems often called AI.  I will refer to them as “AI” in quotes because they may be artificial, but they aren’t intelligent.)

Fears of “AI” damaging human society are rampant as of this writing in May of 2023.  Sure, AI-generated Pizza commercials seem creepily humorous, but code-generated news sites are raking in ad sales and there are semi-laughable but disturbing political ads.  “AI” seems to be a fad, a threat, and a joke at the same time.

But behind it all, even the laughs, is the fear that this stuff is going to clog our cultures with bullshit.  Let me note that bullshit has haunted human society for ages.

Disinformation has been with us since the first criminal lied about their whereabouts.  It has existed in propaganda and prose, skeevy gurus and political theater.  Humans have been generating falsehoods for thousands of years without computer help – we can just do it faster.

Hell, the reason “AI” is such a threat is that humans have a long history of deception and the skills to use it.  We got really good doing this, and now we’ve got a new tool.

So why is it so hard for people to admit that the threat of “AI” exists because of, well, history?

Perhaps some people are idealists.  To admit AI is a threat is to admit that there are cracks and flaws in society where propaganda and lies can slither in and split us apart.  Once you admit that you have to acknowledge this has always been happening, and many institutions and individuals today have been happily propagandizing for decades.

Or perhaps people really wanted to believe that the internet was the Great Solution to ignorance, as opposed to a giant collection of stuff that got half-bought out by corporations.  The internet was never going to “save” us, whatever that means.  It was just a tool, and we could have used it better.  “AI” isn’t going to ruin it – it’ll just be another profit-generating tool for our money-obsessed megacorporate system, and that will ruin things.

Maybe a lot of media figures and pundits don’t want to admit how much of their jobs are propaganda-like, which is why they’re easily replaced with “AI.”  It’s a little hard to admit how much of what you do is just lying and dissembling period.  It’s worse when a bunch of code may take away your job of spreading advertising and propaganda.

Until we admit that the vulnerabilities society has to “AI” are there because of issues that have been with us for a while, we’re not going to deal with them.  Sure we’ll see some sensationalistic articles and overblown ranting, but we won’t deal with the real issues.

Come to think of it, someone could probably program “AI” to critique “AI” and clean up as a sensationalist pundit.  Now that’s a doomsday scenario.

Steven Savage

Trope Friction

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

I was discussing tropes in a meeting of my fellow writers, and a thought came to mind.  Often when we writers discuss tropes it’s do we use them or not.  I realized that sometimes the value of the trope is something to bump up against.

Let me give an example.

In my Avenoth series, there is a sorceress, Marigold Rel-Domau.  Marigold is not your typical weedy magic user, she’s a 6’7” spell-flinger who works out and is willing to mix fisticuffs and sorcery.  The trope of the non-physical magic user was one I enjoyed running up against.  I thought about how using magic doesn’t give any reason not to engage in physical improvement and gives many reasons to hit the weight room.

In my thinking, her career involved troubleshooting dangerous occult and high-tech situations with her partner.  Marigold wielded gravity and kinetic magic, but being practical, she knew she needed more than one tool in her toolbox.  Sometimes punching someone is easier.  Sometimes it’s easier to break something with your hands than to try to leverage a spell.  She also had never gotten flying down so running proved to be a very important thing to perfect.

It could have been just a joke, but by the time I was done, I added to the world and the character.  Marigold, a constant planner in the vein of, well, me, would think that way.  So much came out of taking a trope and utterly inverting it.

Bouncing off the trope sent me higher – as well as leading to a wonderful metaphorical arc in the second book.

But the contrast is something that can draw a reader in.  At first, it may seem to be humorous in breaking a trope – a lot of humor is a kind of inversion or violation.  But the reason something doesn’t fit tropes gives you something to work on, turns the contrast into character, and makes the tale deeper.

Friction can slow things down – but it can also light a match and set ideas on fire.

Tropes may be fun to explore and deconstruct, and that’s a subject writers go on about at length.  But I think we as writers should spend some time looking at how we can use a trope by running up against it.  The friction of expectations can create sparks of inspiration in the author – and fascination in the reader.

So what trope are you sick of, and what appears when you break it open . . .

Steven Savage