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Hey designer, let’s dabble with words!

Designing Atlassian – Medium | D. Keith Robinson My current inspiration and writing craft shelf

I have always been interested in creative writing but over the last year or so I have turned that interest up a few notches, participating in (and “winning”) two month long novel writing sprints, reading several books on the craft of writing and taking three different creative writing courses.

I’ve learned a lot and along the way I’ve seen many parallels, both in process and in principles, to design.

I thought it would be fun to share some of what I have learned and point out those similarities. I’m hoping to structure this as a list of resources to help someone get into the habit and develop a regular writing practice. If that sounds good to you, read on.

As always, if you’ve got something good to share, please don’t hesitate.

Quick disclaimer: I’m a steadfast believer that writing is the most important skill a designer can cultivate outside of the design-specific. Yes, more than coding. (Although, I’m a big fan of that as well.) Why? Almost everything we do involves words. We design with words; our interfaces are made up of words, we use words to describe and document our work, to communicate our work to others and to express ourselves on a daily basis.

Designers write

What follows is a list of things I’ve learned about creative writing and some reflection on how they relate to design.

Get started with practice

Almost all writers will tell you, the number one tip to becoming a better writer is practice. Anne Lamott, the author of one of the best books on writing you will find, Bird by Bird, puts it most famously as “butt in chair.”

How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.

— Anne Lamott (@annelamott) July 26, 2012

This sentiment is true of anything you wish to do well. Practice, do the work, and you will get better.

Writing tip: Lamott also has excellent advice on getting things done. Start by breaking the job down and tackling it one bit at a time (that is the “bird by bird” in her book) to make incremental progress and improvements. GSD!

Technique and process

Here are a few observations and tips around the more mechanical stuff.

Do your research

Research is key to creative writing, as it is key to great design. Writers spend a fair amount of time doing research, and, while I do not have any specific tips on research (it feels like a “just do the work” kind of thing) I like the emphasis writers place on it.

Amity Gaige, one of the instructors in the Wesleyan course I took, breaks research into three types, all of which I think can benefit designers.

  • Functional — interviews, looking up simple facts, Wikipedia, photos, street maps, and other first-hand research. This research is most closely related to what we do as designers.
  • Inspirational — reading books, poetry, listening to music, whatever makes you want to write.
  • Imaginative — the time spent knowing and planning your story world. Build the whole world in your mind, and then work to translate it on the page

Writing tip: try some imaginative research. It can be of like meditation, just sit and think about what you’re trying to create.

Observe and empathize

A writer must be able to empathize with her characters to accurately portray them as real. A big part of developing that empathy is observation. A writer needs to be able to listen and observe actively.

Working on empathy, on active listening and observation, with real people is vital to writing and design.

Writing tip: record everything! Keep a journal (or phone) close at hand and build a file of ideas, observations and thoughts you can use later.

Explore

Many great fiction writers, even the “architects,” use exploration. Moreover, like us, sometimes the goal is learning. Learning about their characters, what’s working, doing experiments with tense, or perspective, or just trying things different ways to see what sticks.

Writing tip: practice free writing, with no stopping and no revision. You’ll likely be surprised at what you discover.

Test with beta readers, and iterate

Did you know that writers do beta testing? Some even do A/B testing! Pretty cool, right? Testing in writing, in essence, is applied almost exactly as we do it in design. Find people, show them your work, get feedback and iterate.

Revision (iteration) is what makes writers successful. Just about everyone will tell you the difference between an amateur and a professional writer is in the revision. Many writers spend years revising their work.

This focus on iteration resonates so much with me. We should always be working on being comfortable showing work early and getting feedback, and then be fully committed to rounds and rounds of feedback and revision until we get it right. Writer’s understand this and, as far as I can tell, assume that you cannot get away with not doing it. Ever.

Writing tip: share (and get feedback on) your work early. If you’re not feeling confident, just start with a few people you really trust.

Sweat the details, sentence by sentence.

At Atlassian, we talk a lot about sweating the details. Writers do this as well, on a sentence by sentence basis. It’s best if you do this during revision. When your drafting, you should just write. I love doing NaNoWriMo because the goal is to get words on the page. I design similarly, letting myself get messy at the start and working on the details, pixel by pixel, later.

It’s a lot of work, but accepting that you can be messy when you’re starting out is empowering. Make a mess and then take your time to test, get feedback and fix it later.

Writing tip: during revision, read your work out loud. Listen for simple mistakes, the flow of the language and notice if you find yourself getting bored.

Craft and style

Here are a few observations around the craft and style of writing.

Show, don’t tell

Start by choosing details with purpose, and not relying on exposition to explain things. A great scene has action, where the reader can see what is happening as opposed to being told. If needed, additional copy and exposition should shape, close, and augment what you’re showing.

If you find yourself explaining things in a story, as opposed to showing concrete detail and action, you’re probably off-track.

Designers have a similar problem. It is always better to let the design do the talking and, only when needed, add an explanation (help docs, etc.) to tie things together or augment.

Writing tip: write with a bias for action and only dip into exposition, if needed, after you’ve done your showing. Give your scenes a sense of physicality, and a concrete sense of place.

Example:

Telling: Harry was scared, it was dark, and the large chamber reminded him of his nightmares.

Showing: He was standing at the end of a long, dimly lit chamber. Towering stone pillars entwined with more serpents, rose to a ceiling lost in darkness, casting long, black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the place. ~ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

Use concrete language

One of my favorite design principles is clarity > clever and concrete > abstract fits well with that.

Many writers want to write about big ideas (love, death, war) and start out by telling, explaining and working with abstract words. It’s much better to show, with concrete details, as it gives the reader the context they need to understand things.

The same goes for design when we strive for clarity, understanding, and meaning within the work, as opposed to supplementing it, we find our work easier to grasp.

Writing tip: check for adverbs and use them with purpose and care. They can be abstractions or short cuts that dilute your writing.

Example:

Superfluous adverb alert: “I hate your guts,” Jack said angrily.

Just use the words to convey meaning: “I hate your guts,” Jill said.

Or, if you want to go with an adverb for a different, ironic or surprising effect: “I hate your guts,” Jill said sweetly.

Employ hierarchy

Frank Conroy, former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop came up with a fascinating way to structure writing that he calls the Pyramid of Literary Craft. Here is a rough breakdown:

  1. You start with meaning, sense, and clarity. The foundation of your writing should be clear and understandable and your grammar and syntax correct. It’s all about choosing the proper words for what you want to say, and it’s not easy.
  2. You then evoke the senses with voice, tone, and mood. Use concrete detail to allow your reader to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste what’s going on.
  3. The top three levels are Subtext, Metaphor, and Symbol, what Conroy calls “the fancy stuff” and it’s here that you can keep sweating the details and work with the language to make it unique. All the while keeping a keen eye on your base of clarity, sense, and meaning.

I love thinking about how this same thinking can be applied to design. Nail the basics, and once you’ve got that perfect, you can keep polishing, revising and sweating those details as you move up, adding personality, polish and all the “fancy stuff” that makes something lovable and delightful.

Writing tip: favor words that have reference to our physical experience; of a place, of another person, of a sound, of a smell, of a taste, of a feeling.

Leverage friction

Friction is something we tend (possibly to our detriment) to avoid at all costs in design, but something writers use to significant effect. Friction can be applied when a writer is stuck or when something in their work isn’t working. Introducing a new character to a scene to add some conflict can suddenly remove a block, for example.

I think designers could stand to embrace friction a bit more as a way to innovate or problem solve. Our disrupt play, for example, in some ways applies friction to help us think differently.

As well, friction in design can serve to teach or to provide our customers with welcome breaks from complication. Used well, friction can be a strong, useful tool in design, just as it is in writing.

Friction is essential for personal growth and self-discovery. At the very least, we should be asking ourselves what we might be losing when we remove friction.

Writing tip: give your characters flaws to overcome and problems to solve. This makes them interesting, helps them grow and contributes to the meaningfulness of their arc and the story you’re trying to tell.

Choose a point of view

There are many ways to tell a story and to solve a problem. Writers work in a world made of shades of grey, not absolutes, just as designers do. In writing as in design, it’s essential to have a point of view, and to make an explicit, meaningful choice about how you’ll speak to your audience.

Writing tip: try writing the same thing from different points of view. Sometimes a different perspective (third- vs first-person for example) can make a dead scene live.

Embrace complexity

The best stories and characters are complex, but not hard to understand or read. It’s the writer’s job to work through and understand and develop that complexity, and then show it to the reader in a way that is clear, understandable and enjoyable.

At Atlassian, especially, we know how hard it is to balance complexity with ease of use. However, as with friction, we need to embrace complexity in our work, and do our best to bring clarity and meaning to it, without sacrificing the power that comes with the complicated.

Writing tip: use planning outlines to bring structure and order to the complicated, and when in doubt, cut it out. Removing something is almost always better than trying to force something to work.

Link round-up for the prose-challenged

Books

Writing courses

Other resources

Thanks for reading, I hope there was something in here that’s helpful to you. For bonus points, join me in doing National Novel Writing Month. I promise you really don’t need to do any prep if you don’t want. All you need is a butt, a chair and the desire to try and write a novel.

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Hey designer, let’s dabble with words! was originally published in Designing Atlassian on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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