What Can a Writer Learn from the Principles of Art and Design?

To compose means so many things. It means put parts together. Arrange and rearrange. Intentionally design. To balance, control, and manage until everything flows together as a unified whole.

I may be a writer now, but my background was originally in art. In fact, one of our family jokes is that I was the art major, but now I write novels, and my sister, the English major, became a professional fine artist.

As a fine artist, I composed with color, line, shape, pattern, texture and more.

As a writer, I compose with words, meanings, sentences, punctuation, paragraphs and more.

Both fine art and writing require creativity and hard work. They also require an understanding of structure and principles. Surprisingly, the same principles used by an artist can inspire excellent writing as well.


An artist must choose one major element to be the focus of their art work—the spot where the viewer’s eye is attracted to first.

Likewise, a novelist should choose some element in their story that draws the reader’s attention. Most often this is the struggle and growth of the protagonist. But it could also be the theme or the emotional tug on the reader, or a major event such as a war or crime.

Some Ways to Add Emphasis to Your Novel

  • Make the focus apparent on the first page either by saying it in a creative way or showing it through character actions and thought.
  • Devote the most description, inner thought, and action in the story to this element.
  • Mention the focus element on almost every page.

For more on adding emphasis, including the use of punctuation, read Pace, Pause, and Silence: Creating Emphasis and Suspense in Your Writing by Lorelei Lingard.


Contrast is related to emphasis. In order to make one element stand out in an artwork, the other elements must contrast in some way, such as in color, size, position, clarity. A writer does the same. For example, to make the protagonist stand out, other characters must play a lesser role.

Some Ways to Add Contrast to Your Novel

  • Give each character a unique appearance and vocabulary or voice.
  • Add surprising contrasts, such as a pleasant setting in which something horrible happens. Or have a nasty character do something kind.
  • When an important character action or event occurs have it move from a dark setting to lighter one.

For more on how to add contrast, read Andrew Gallagher’s Scene Contrast.

Balance & Alignment

An artist tries to balance the art elements in their work adding just enough of each to form a harmonious whole. Symmetrical design, in which everything on either side of a center dividing line, is the most balanced and calming.

A writer needs to do the same. Too much inner thought or description can slow the pace of a novel almost to a standstill. Too much straight action or dialogue can leave the reader confused as to character motivation and beliefs.

Some Ways to Add Balance to Your Novel

  • Balance highly active scenes with calmer, more reflective, ones.
  • In long sections of dialogue, make sure character actions, setting, and mood are reflected through dialogue tags and interspersed description and inner thoughts.

To learn more about balancing story elements, see Gloria Kempton’s How to Balance Action, Narrative, and Dialogue in Your Novel.


An artwork needs not only to capture the viewer’s attention with the focal point, but then must move that viewer’s eye around the entire work. An artist does this by locating other interesting elements in such a way that the eye circles in a triangular or spiral motion.

A writer cannot just emphasize one element of the story. That element must be building to a climax and resolution. This is what creates the up-and-down plotline of the story. In most plot templates.

Some Ways to Add Movement to Your Novel

  • Show the character or focal element being propelled by the forces that in conflict.
  • Show the character moving during reflective thought and dialogue.

For more on adding movement to your writing see Shaun Levin’s Never Just One Thing.

What other art elements do you think can be applied to writing?

Please post your thought and comments below.

A Creative Focus for 2021

Continuing the tradition I started several years ago, I have again chosen 12 meaningful words to focus on each month of 2021. I decided that this year I wanted every word to be an active verb. My challenge is to see how I can apply these to my writing life. Why have I done this?

Why I Focus on BIG Words

With so many things to write about, why would a writer benefit from selecting a few words to focus on in a blog? Being a writer is a time-consuming occupation. Writing alone takes up much of my day. But I also need to spend time on promotion and marketing. I have blogs like this one to write. Newsletters to get out every month. Emails to answer. Workshops to give. And an active home life too.

When preparing to write my blog posts, having a specific word to focus on helps me draw my attention to that one word. I can look for relevant quotes and images to inspire me. In my journal I can play with associations I have with the word.

When I get ready to write, I can combine the meaning of the word with my writing path and the thoughts I want to share with other writers, and despite the constraint of the one word focus, be more creative.

“We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” 

Phi Hansen

Limitation Actually Fosters Creativity

Working within limitations actually forces our brains to solve problems more creatively. Despite the common belief that the best ideas develop in an open, free-wheeling atmosphere, Brent David Russo in his dissertation on Creativity and Constraint found that:

“for creative teams in organizational settings, there can be freedom in constraint; it’s knowing what to do with them when they emerge, finding the right constraints in the right balance, and crafting an environment in which they can be perceived as opportunities rather than obstacles. The well overused cliché about creativity is “thinking outside of the box.” While this metaphor assumes an empty box, my
dissertation research demonstrates that there are valuable tools right within the box that can be used to bolster team creativity if the creators know where to look to find them.”
p. 149

This should not be surprising. Engineers and architects use creative problem solving to build incredible structures within all kinds of limitations from material strengths to preset deadlines.

Photo by Hao Zhang

I personally utilize both paths to creativity. When I am fast drafting I let all outside distractions fall away and focus only on the flow of creative ideas. But when I am revising, I draw on the creative solutions that comes from problem solving within limitations. This is the method I recommend in my new book Revise Your Draft and Make It Shine. (FREE for the next 5 days 1/11/21 to 1/15/21)

My 2021 Words

So I am going to take advantage of the creative push working within limits can give me and limit myself focus to the the following words:.

        • January -Habitualize
        • February – Amaze
        • March – Compose
        • April – Harmonize
        • May – Cherish
        • June – Delight
        • July – Discover
        • August – Free
        • September – Fuel
        • October – Invigorate
        • November – Challenge
        • December – Enlighten

Wordart Bird

Do these words inspire you?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

3 Revision Tips and a New Book

I want to start off with a big accomplishment for me. I successfully completed another National Novel Writing Month draft.

Cheers to all my fellow writers who wrote during the month. Even if you didn’t make 50,000 words just getting into the chair, and writing is a grand achievement.

Congratulations Poster for NaNoWri Winners

My efforts at NaNo were complicated by the fact that I was writing and revising my newest Write for Success book Revise Your Draft and Make It Shine.

This book and the first one, Fast Draft Your Manuscript and Get It Done, contains everything I have learned doing NaNoWri, plus what I have absorbed from my reading, workshops I have taken, and most importantly, my fellow authors.

Fast Draft Your Manuscript and Revise Your Draft Cover Photos

Now there are two!

“The most useful and usable how-to writing workbook I have seen in a long time -maybe ever.” —Christa Bedwin, Professional Editor

Here are Three Revision Tips for You

Revision Tip 1: Let It Rest

One of the most important things I learned after NaNoWri is to put my fast drafts away and let them sit as long as possible before reading for revision. So right now my messy, sloppy, barely readable draft is tucked away in its folder, not to be seen again until January. Meanwhile, I am working on a Holiday short story for all my dedicated Zara’s Readers Club members.

Revision Tip 2: Use a Framework

Make sure you have a model or outline or beat sheet to structure your story around. This can be one you used to draft from, or if you didn’t use one or veered way off course, one that you find that closely matches your genre. So while your draft is resting, spend some time reading similar works or finding a plot template on the web.

Then select just one and stick with it. It is easy to get confused when you try to apply different templates over each other.

Having a structure to compare your draft to is a lifesaver. It will make the entire revision process less stressful and go much faster.

Revision Tip 3: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The structure is the most important part of your novel. You can have fascinating characters and an intriguing setting, but if the reader has no idea what is going on you will lose them. So don’t worry about fixing grammar or spelling or fancying up the language at first. Focus on getting the story structure in place with a strong opening, a well-paced middle, and a satisfying conclusion.

Once you have that, you can polish up your prose all you want.

Revision Workshop

In January I will be teaching the workshop 30 Days of Revision Tips. In this in workshop, you will receive a revision road map with a tip for revising your draft every day for thirty days. By the end of the month, you should be well on the way to having a more organized and polished draft.

Offered by From the Heart Romance Writers January 2021 REGISTER HERE

Revise Your Draft and Make It Shine

For more revision tips, tricks, and time savers, take a peek at my book. It is short and full of checklists designed to keep me and you on track. There are also oodles of links to useful tools and lists, and at the very back, a whole section of tools just for writers of fiction. Available at Amazon for $2.99 or free from Kindle Unlimited

Revise Your Manuscript Cover Image.

Happy Revising!

What do you dislike the most about revision?

I welcome your thoughts and comments