Why Sketching Matters

ImageOne of my wonderful writers shared with me something picture book author Candy Fleming told her: to keep in mind that most of what we write will be crap. Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron also remind us to feel free to write the worst garbage in the world, especially first thing every day. What I like about the idea of “writing sketches” is that we can explore all kinds of things in quick sketch form. Writing sketches are much like the sketches artists do for a painting. Before uncapping an expensive tube of alizarin crimson oil paint an artist will do page after page of sketches, often looking directly at a subject in different poses, different lights, on different days. That’s what it takes to truly understand a boy dressed in blue or a woman draped on a couch or a vase of sunflowers or a starry night.

If we think of quick writes to explore place or character or emotion or tension as sketches and realize that we’ll do many of them before we find the best way to write something, we’ll be polishing our skills the way artists polish theirs. I’m reading The Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which has the most amazing illustrations by Jim Kay. On his web site Kay writes about doing 30 sketches of the boy for one scene. 30! How often do writers write something 30 times trying to get it right? Ever? Few of us do. We are too attached to the way our words first fall on the page or we think we are supposed to be able to get things down perfectly the first time. We even feel like we’re not really writers if we don’t.

That’s just weird, really, when you think about it. How many times must a choir rehearse a song or a violinist practice scales? What I think now is that we’re not really serious writers unless we sketch as much with words as artists do with pencils. We writers haven’t developed enough ways to do writing practice nor have we required it of ourselves. As if out of all creative types we are the only ones who can (and must) get it right either the first time or after a few little tweaks.

Let go of that! Give yourself permission to write and write and write some more knowing that among the sketches will be some things that might become masterpieces. It might be the way the girl at the next table keeps laughing as she reads her journal or how the cold coming off the plate glass window beside your table has seeped into your bones or the fact that the man standing in line for coffee wears light gray pants with creases sharp enough to cut paper. Think about this—if you’re not doing lots of writing sketches, your stories and books will have the quality of a first sketch. And that, my writing friends, will not a masterpiece make.

And if you’re tempted to submit a manuscript to an editor before you’ve done enough sketching, just take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s journals. You’ll be inspired, I hope, to buy and carry around a writer’s sketchbook. And if you use it, I promise your writing skills will begin to shine. And you’ll have a lot of fun, too!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathy Doherty says:

    I tried writing sketches on a couple of my quirkly characters and ended up knowing them better. I’m convinced this stretched me as a writer . . . and I got to know my characters better.
    Lois Lowry, Newbery Award winner, once told me at a reading conference that she often asks herself WHAT IF. WHAT IF my character got caught in a burning building? WHAT IF [s]he got lost in a forest? In her own way, Lowry is sketching, too!

    P.S. If you’ve never read THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, treat yourself. I just read it for the second time.


  2. Kathy Doherty says:

    Sorry I repeated myself.


  3. kimgriswell says:

    I have read Gilly and of course I loved it! The “WHAT IF” exercise is a great one, and, you’re right: that’s a kind of sketching, too. Scene sketching! Action sketching. Great stuff.


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