How to polish your writing skills

As visual creatives, we have to write so much more often than we’d like. From blog posts to book introductions, to bios, to artist profiles, the writing is often as important as any image we create. The trouble is that the mechanics of making good writing can feel foreign to those of us who are used to making great image content.

When you think about photography or design, it’s very, very rare that you get the exact shot in a single frame, with no adjustment required—whether this was in the darkroom or digital post-processing now. With design, there are constant tweaks and iterations until the artist in you recognizes when it’s time to quit.

We take for granted that writing works the same way. Everything you write needs cleaned up and edited, no matter how seasoned a writer you are, to finish it. Polishing your writing is part of developing your work, as it is in Photoshop. To guide you through the process, here are the basic steps for polishing your writing in terms of the basic edits we do to most of our photos.

1. Straighten

When you write your first draft, the idea is to get as much material down on the page as you can without censoring. Think about trying to capture waves on a shore with a camera: You are trying to get the timing of the wave and the phone and the light, not fussing if the horizon is level.

With your written work, re-read it. Ensure that it aligns with your goals for writing the piece. Did you answer all the questions? Make all the points you needed to make?

2. Crop

Cropping the photo gives it clarity of the subject, takes out distractions, and removes anything unnecessary that weakens the strength of the composition. While you might have written generously in the draft, now is the time to cut ruthlessly. Get rid of everything off-topic or irrelevant. Then get a cup of coffee. After a quick break, go back and get rid of every sentence or word that you can possibly live without.

3. Adjust exposure

After you remove all excess material, make sure you have spent the most words, and the right words, on the most important things. Make sure the first sentence of every paragraph is a clear setup, and the last one answers “so what?” or works as a transition. Now is the time to increase exposure on your most important, most salient content.

4. Experiment with contrast

When you make adjustments to your photo, slide the contrast around to find which level gives the right light to emphasize the subject. You don’t want to blow out highlights or have too much in shadow so it’s hard to differentiate. In writing, this is where you take a look at your language and imagery. Have you blown out overused figures of speech you need to rework? Can you make a comparison that might help clarify a point? Can you add descriptions or fine-tune similes and metaphors to make your writing more evocative? Eye-catching photos have interesting contrast. You achieve this in writing with vivid sensory details, powerful emotions, potent memories, and sweet familiarity in your word choice, phrases, and descriptive comparisons.

5. Adjust the levels

Transitions, in and out of a paragraph, are like the mid-tones of your content. They sharpen edges, give something depth, clarify, and create relationships. We can be so eager to put down our ideas we forget to build a framework for how one sentence relates to the one next to it and for leaps from paragraph to paragraph.

Double-check your transitions. Put more in. You often need more than you think. Make sure your paragraphs are connected to each other with transition lines or sentences. Words like also, then, still, while, additionally, comparatively, moreover, furthermore, work within a paragraph, whereas words like however, for example, similarly work between paragraphs. Transitions can either be the last line of a paragraph or the first line of the next, whichever feels like it flows better.

6. Fix saturation

Make sure you’ve used the best words you can use, both for your audience and your subject. Like a washed-out photo, some words fundamentally weaken writing. Words like very, actual, in my opinion, really, just water down your writing when you’re trying to do the opposite. If you use these, try intensifying with a better word for what you’re using those words to modify. Also, be vigilant about strong nouns and active verbs. Remember that there is a better way to say sentences that heavily feature pronouns (like them, it, he) and forms of to be (like is, are, was). Good writing almost never needs them, and they de-saturate your work.

Instead of calling something red, consider words like ruby or crimson. But, just as in adjusting your saturation in an image, it’s a balance: You want the richest language you can, but you don’t want to blow anything out or be cartoony. Don’t over-saturate. If there is any chance someone in your primary audience won’t know a word, think twice about using it. It goes without saying that you should never use words where you, the writer, have to think twice about what they mean.

7. Correct and remove spots

This stage is not about polishing and editing, it’s about proofreading. Proofreading is different from developing.

People think editing and writing are about punctuation, spelling, mistakes, and the oh-so-intimidating grammar. They know that poor editing on this front will make them look foolish, but if they’re confident with writing mechanics, they may not feel like they need to adjust the work. This is like saying that since there is no dust on the image sensor and no blemish in the sky of the photograph, there’s nothing else to do to the photo. A typical workflow makes spot corrections near the end as a kind of cleanup, not as the main adjustment.

An insider tip: Read your work backward, once sentence at a time. This way, your sentences stand in isolation, so you have a better chance of catching errors and mistakes. You won’t overlook something because you’re so familiar with the flow of words.

Polishing your writing is about so much more than finding and fixing errors. It’s a way to develop your work to make it closest to your vision. Even though writing might be the secondary expression in a project, strengthening the writing that goes with your creative work will open new ways for your audience to connect with it.


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