The trick to writing by layers – like artists

One of the ways to get structured written content assembled quickly is to write it in layers.

The original artwork for Kiwi Air Power by the RNZN's official artist Colin C Wynn, which I commissioned and which now hangs on my wall...
The original artwork for my book ‘Kiwi Air Power’, which I commissioned from the Royal New Zealand Navy’s official artist, and which now hangs on my wall…

It’s a bit like painting.  Most artists don’t start off with a blank canvas; it’s prepared with a broad sketch, then washes. Only then does the artist start filling in the detail, often by layers.

My brother in law is a professional artist – one of New Zealand’s leading maritime artists, in fact, and the RNZN’s official artist – and I’ve watched him work. His approach is very different from amateur paint-by-numbers, where every detail is filled in piece by piece.

The thing is, I often find writers approaching what they’re doing as if it were paint-by-numbers – writing every sentence until perfect, then moving on to the next. The problem is that it loses perspective.

So if you’re daunted by the complexity of what you have to write – be it non-fiction or the complexities of a novel with its character arcs, plot, dialogue, need for pacing and so forth, try this.

I’ll often start with the skeleton of a chapter or sequence – the main thrust of what I want to say.

Then I’ll go back and add a layer – add nuances to the argument, build points or add detail. It might be a particular type of detail, for instance.

Then I’ll go back again – and add another layer, like ‘colour’.

About this time I’ll often re-style it around the more complex nature of the content.

It’s the inverse of the method by which you totally finish one part before moving on to the other. The advantage is that it gives you that structural overview from the outset.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


11 thoughts on “The trick to writing by layers – like artists

  1. This is exactly right. Those additional layers are the drafts that come after the first, but they don’t happen when people strive for perfection in the first draft. Instead, they end up trying to repair perfect sentences crammed together to create a whole, except the whole doesn’t work. It’s like trying to build the perfect cathedral by stealing one piece from each cathedral in Europe and wondering why it won’t stand. You can’t shortcut the process. The first draft is the concept. The true magic comes later after most have given up.

  2. There’s definitely a strong co-relation between painting and writing, particularly the way both are so accessible to the beginner. Anyone can buy paint and canvas and slap the two together, but will anyone else want to pay money for it? Those early attempts are almost always dire! Sigh – nothing for it but those 10,000 hours of practice. If you want me I’ll be at my desk…

  3. Sandra Scofield, in her book, MAKE A SCENE, teaches writing scenes in four layers: Action beats, setting an physical description, internalities (emotion, physical sensation, thoughts, inner monologue), and dialog.

    When I analyze my scene, or another if I’m critting, I use the text highlighter. I go through and color everything orange. Then I take out all the dialog highlighter. After that I go through and change the descriptions to green, and, for last, I highlight all the internalities as yellow.

    Then I can see, at a glance, where the layers come into the scene. And it’s easy to use the colors to work on a layer and leave the rest alone.

      1. Well…I don’t write layers in that order. But, I think I revise in that order, with dialog being the last big set of changes in a scene, so that I can get the character’s voice right.

  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    This post was super helpful to me. While not necessarily a new idea, it helped to remind me that I don’t have to have every page perfect before moving on.
    I clicked onto his brother’s link. Colin does have a beautiful talent.

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