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Visual Thinking

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A month or so ago, I was deep into first-pass editing. This is the stage after you receive an editorial letter that poses questions about character development, suggests adding scenes (or removing them), and encourages other “big picture” thinking. I posted a photo of what my editing process looked like for that morning, and Therese Walsh messaged me: “Please write a post about this.”

I thought that was Therese just being sweet and supportive (as is her way) because what could I possibly say about something so obvious?

But then, over the course of the day, similar comments trickled in. I was surprised, and it got me thinking that maybe…was it possible?…not everyone organized their thoughts in pictures? So I did a little digging.

Turns out, I am a visual thinker (aka picture thinker), as are 60-65% of the rest of you. When you write, do you first picture the scene in your mind, and then describe what you see? Or, do you begin to write and the scene slowly materializes as your words hit the page? If you are the former, [insert Jeff Foxworthy’s voice] you might be a visual thinker.

If you are athletic, musical or mathematically inclined, you may be more inclined to visual thinking.

Back in the 1970s,“visual” and “verbal” thinking were set up as opposites, but the brain is never that simple. Most of us think and learn in a combination of ways.

For example, Temple Grandin reports that words touch off cascades of images as her visual and language systems interact. (Otis, Psychology Today)

Poet Natasha Trethewey has such a strong visual memory that, when she studied for tests in high school, she would visually memorize her notes and then read the answers off her mental scans. (Id.)

Jessica Spotswood, an author friend of mine, gets down to editing by retyping her entire book, character-by-character, starting with page one. She says, seeing the words all together on the page visually disengages her from the specific words originally selected, and allows her to fine-tune her message.

So, this brings me back to my own writing and editing processes. Why do I do it the way that I do, and might it also help you?

When in initial drafting mode, I often google headshots of people who look like the characters in my head. I print them out and have them on my desktop, ready to pull up when I want to “hear” their voices. Same thing with natural landscapes, even road maps. I’ve gone so far as to make dioramas and poster boards. That is until Pinterest came around and made the process digital.

Mind maps are great for brainstorming all the elements you want to include in the scene and depicting how contrasting ideas will play off each other.

Once the story is underway, I need the pictures less, but the need resurfaces when it comes to editing. I cannot jump into the manuscript and immediately start putting new words to paper. It feels a bit like being dropped into a thick forest of words without a compass.

To accomplish my editing goals, I have to step back and focus on the concepts, feelings, moods, and ideas, rather than the words that will ultimately express those same things to the reader.

I might use color to conceptualize emotion, or even just to separate my thoughts and keep my mind clear. Symbols help me focus on themes.

I often use check boxes, or dialogue bubbles. Sketching my ideas helps me “see” them and think about them—sometimes staring at a wall for half an hour is my most productive writing time. The goal is to ultimately understand my ideas well enough that I can describe them to someone who hasn’t seen the picture before.

In short, picture-thinker or not, we all have our own ways of working through the editing process.

For more information on visual learning, check out these articles: Reuell, Peter, Visual Images Often Intrude on Verbal Thinking, The Harvard Gazette (May 11, 2017); Otis, Laura, A New Look at Visual Thinking, Laura Otis, Psychology Today (Feb. 16, 2016); Grandin, Temple, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. (Bloomsbury 2006.)

What tips, tricks, or methods do you use to work through the brainstorming or editing process?