I have a fear of writing. I’ve feared it for as long as I can remember. This pairs poorly with my deep-seated desire to write regularly and well. I have tremendous respect for people who work with words professionally, and I occasionally aspire to their skillful manipulation of words to coherent thought.
Let me give you a glimpse into the process of this particular piece. I’ve typed out the first few paragraphs; checked email, Asana, text messages, and Slack; returned to this draft and transitioned to a bullet-point outline when the words stopped coming naturally. Physically in my body I notice my chest restricting, my brain seems disjointed from my mind, my fingers are more cautious as I type. I’m starting to feel blocked and frustrated.
Two and a half years ago I quit my job as an in-house chef and also operations administrator at an EdTech startup to retrain myself as a UX designer. Since working as a designer I’ve noticed parallels between the design and writing processes. When I first started in design, I often jumped into high-fidelity mocking before working out flows and interaction behaviors in lower fidelity wireframes. My brain understood the finished product look-alike more readily, and so I gravitated towards adding color, border radius, and perfect alignment early in exploring solutions to a problem.
On one project, I worked with our CEO on a seemingly straightforward landing page. I shared some initial mocks with our team for feedback and quickly received a note from the CEO. He asked pointedly, “What is the main message I’m supposed to get through this page?” I had wondered exactly the same thing as I was putting together the page but brushed it aside as something that could be worked out in this initial feedback stage. He recommended starting with a cruder tool such as an excel spreadsheet or sheet of paper to limit my ability to fuss with the details. He also gave me the tip to expressing a design concept with words, first.
Today my process has changed to include his feedback. I start with words, even a few short sentence fragments, before moving on to either a word doc or spreadsheet. A visual high-fidelity version is further down the line. I’ve learned to appreciate and actually enjoy this non-visual stage in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated when I first thought about being a designer.
But back to writing. My impulse is still to jump to a nearly finished product, like my colorful mockups, before going back for a round of “light editing”. In grade school if this round of editing included anything larger than a grammar or spelling correction, I became deeply discouraged and was unable to see an opportunity in rethinking the original structure of the essay. Similarly, after investing time in details of a high fidelity mock, I can become mentally blocked from tearing it down and rethinking the concept completely.
So what is the low-fidelity answer for writing? I’ve chatted with writer friends and no solution is the same. One friend collects germs of ideas as notes in her phone. When one of these fragments gathers momentum, she flushes it out into a framework before writing a draft (on her phone!) from start to finish. Then she goes back to reread and edit. There’s merit in powering through an entire draft and resisting the urge to edit as you go. The latter is one of my pitfalls. Another friend sits with several ideas until space and time align. Then she cranks out an essay in one sitting before one or more phases of editing. She spoke about editing, especially from others, as a means to shape her writing into something different.
I’ve asked a friend to edit this piece and, like the results of design feedback from my peers, it’s turned into something I didn’t envision at the start. Something richer. These days, when I start a design, I start with a goal, a flow, and screenshots of well-designed features for inspiration. I also never expect my first design to make it to production. Writing isn’t so different. The good stuff happens while laying the foundation upfront and gathering external perspectives along the way. The presentable outcome is defined through these two invisible but necessary stages.
I think the best way to end this is with some advice to my future frustrated self. Like all skills that have been challenging for me to take up, I’ve realized that writing is yet another skill, and skills are crafted over time. There are methods to break down and practice elements of the craft in steps. But self-reflection, learning from others, and ongoing practice is what will slowly shift this aspiration into a reliable craft.
- Thank you to Jessica Dubin for her skillful editing and encouragement throughout this process.*