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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?
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.