Write by Numbers

You might recall Painting by Numbers. For those of you blissfully unaware of what it’s all about, or were protected from such culturally insane artefacts by caring and loving parents, Painting by Numbers is as explained by Wikipedia, it’s a “style of art performed by filling numbered areas with specific colours.”

A style of art? Oh, right. As in art is in the eye of the beholder, art as an experience, not an object kind of art. Got it. (I don’t really get it, but why argue with a Wikipedia definition?)

If you’ve never seen the inside of a Painting by Numbers box here’s what’s inside: an inked, outlined image on a gessoed board. Inside the inked outline, in the white space, are numbers. Those little numbers correspond to little numbered pots of colour. The person painting matches it all up: colour pot #1 will be used wherever colour #1 appears on the board, using the brush that’s supplied. The image is preselected. The colours identified. Brush and brush cleaner supplied. All the human has to do is paint.


I don’t know that I’d call Paint by Numbers an art form so much as a craft form. And I don’t know if it’s helpful for people who have no talent, or predisposition toward understanding colour theory, or understanding how light affects colour, or how colours might be blended together since none of that applies to painting by the numbers.

Still, painting by numbers is a good place to start to get a feel for some of the material and make decisions about whether painting is of interest. It does demonstrate a little about the process, of getting ready, of the discipline. It can help the learning painter have some awareness about how to hold a paintbrush, how much paint to use, what kind of brush strokes to use to achieve different effects.  It’s also a lot of fun to do at a cottage when there is nothing else to do, and you have a little wine, some great music and some friends and loved ones and make it a competition.

Meanwhile away from the world of painting, in the snow-tipped mountains known as  Writering World, we now have the Snowflake method to plan and write a novel, which is “a scientific approach to writing a book.”

A scientific approach. To writing. A book. It even features — wait for it — a spreadsheet!

In truth, I am only slightly aghast. Process is important and spreadsheets have value for bunches of things, even as part of the prepare to write writering process. But a scientific approach to writing?

That sentence, with those words next to each other … scientific approach to writing… would be just fine if not for the inclusion of the word scientific. What, exactly does scientific mean to suggest here? A repeatable process that ensures a bona fide outcome for everyone if followed? Scientific because it was ‘invented’ by a PhD? I am not certain. It’s not clear. A teachable moment about being precise with word usage, with meaning of words and intent of word placement.

Back on track about the approach to writing: the thing about too fine a focus on process is that sometimes it’s so geared to output that there’s little focus on quality. Both are important, although it seems that process is more important to beginner writers who want to know the secrets to writing. Let me say this about that. There are no secrets. Want to write. Write and write well. Find someone to publish your stuff if you want to be published. Keep writing.

Everyone who writes regularly eventually lands on an approach that works for them. They’ve gotten to it by practice and have found over the years that some things work better than others. And some people flounder with any approach: it only comes together for them when they sit to write. Whatever works, works. The more people who share what works for them, the better. The more that people who want to write try different approaches, to find or refine one that works, so much the better.

There is no single best way to write that works for everyone, except to do the work of writing. And in that, there is a fair amount of diversity. Some people research things to death, let all the information stew in their heads and then just sit to write. Others go the next step and plan it all out. Others start with a line in their head and go from there.

All approaches are worth learning about in order to find a process that fits you and that works for you. And if you have a complicated story line, it can help to map it out, get it out from your head and onto something where you can see it visually, where you can connect the dots.

One caveat: no writing approach in the world will teach you what words to put next to each other to make a sentence a great sentence, a paragraph a great paragraph, a character believable, a story that people will want to read.  That’s a combination of reading, writing, editing and writing and that endless loop in all writers’ lives.

As for approaches to writing? It is true that some people thrive when there’s a prescribed process — colour within the lines, use the colour you’re told, ensure you have a hopeful ending. And others, once they learn some basics, don’t need those lines and guides  because they’ve outgrown them and can take their innate talent, mix in the discipline of practice and point themselves in the direction of art and mastery.


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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14 Responses to Write by Numbers

  1. Valerie says:

    GAAAWWD… I just LOOOOVE you sense of humor !! If I do find mugs that write for you, I’ll be sure to get two. One for me, one for you. Any preference of the penmanship? 🙂

    • FS says:

      Why thank you. I can see all sorts of time when a writing mug (as in cup, not face) would be useful. Let’s see: my preference in penspersonship is rather specific, rather simple: legible.

  2. Valerie says:

    In the interest of time you won’t talk about you ?
    Just when it was getting interesting….
    I had no idea writers were superstitious. Thank you for sharing that!
    Maybe I need to get myself a writing mug… For my warm milk in the middle of the night…. 🙂

    • FS says:

      Some writers seem to be superstitious… and if you can find a mug that writes for you, pleeeeze let me know.

  3. Valerie says:

    PS: It WOULD be interesting to study heart rate variability as the writer immerses in the writing process. It would also be really cool to do a PET scan of the brain at different moments in the process of writing…. See what areas of the brain light up… Just for fun….

    • FS says:

      YES! The PET scan would TOTALLY be cool. I’d even volunteer! If nothing else it would prove I have a brain, and that my head is not just a place for dust bunnies and monkeys to bounce around in.

      • Valerie says:

        I don’t think we need a pet scan to prove you have a brain my dear… And one that is highly evolved I might add, even if there are other primates jumping up and down between neuronal axons 😉

      • FS says:

        A pet scan…is that when dogs look you over? 😉

  4. Valerie says:

    I meant GUINEA pigs… 😀

    • FS says:

      awww. I liked Ginny pigs, specially since I know of someone named Ginny who I hear through the grapevine is a bit…. odd.

  5. ValerieD says:

    Interesting post. After reading the description of this ‘scientific’ method, on the link you provided, and a couple of other pages that talk about this technique, (like this one http://jordanmccollum.com/2009/10/pros-cons-snowflake-method/), I have to agree wholeheartedly with you.
    I’d be curious to know just how many writers actually adhere to this Snow Flake approach. Seems cumbersome to me. This technique of layering like a bumblebee would drive me nuts ( a little here, a little there, a sentence here, a sentence there…). I would rather focus on one thing, write, expand and get it done, before I move on to something else.
    As far as the spreadsheet goes… yuk. I’d feel like my story’s had been put in a box (that’s what a spreadsheets are, no? A bunch of boxes in a bigger box); worse, I’d feel as if I was doing some sort of accounting. Yuk Yuk and triple Yuk.
    If I need to outline a sequence of events or points to go over, a blank sheet of paper and some markers work great for me… I draw a nice flow chart, with pretty curved arrows of different colors, between little bubbles of all different shapes and sizes (did I mention I like bubbles?)… It’s fun, it’s creative. It’s visually expansive and inviting. It’s free form.
    But then, I’ve never written novel. I just don’t like squares but I LOVE curves… Curves are… well… sexy.
    Maybe the snow flake thing works for novelists have a tendency to get lost, become tangential or digress?

    • FS says:

      Thank you… it would be interesting to do a study on the different approaches and methods people use to plan their writing works, and then how it works in process, and map it to personality types. Just for fun :-).

      • Valerie says:

        Ah…. the scientist in you shines again! Yes that would be a fun experiment to do. I bet Writing folks would make good ginny pigs, wouldn’t they?. 😉

        How would we design the study though? People tend to go about things differently when they are being observed. Can’t do a retrospective, census type study. Too many confounding variables. Do writers always use EXACTLY the same approach twice? Or does the method adapt to the project and the mood of the subject? I suspect there are as many hybrid methods out there as there are writers and projects.

        Maybe we should try to do it double-blind sudy?
        Blinding the writers will be easy enough. Get a group of them together and tell them that we will be observing the effects of writing on heart rate variability or something like that. That way, they don’t get self conscious about “performing the right way”.
        Then give them a series of assignments in random order (to test for reproducibility of process). I would suggest the following, but feel free to expand or substitute…

        1. Letter to an imaginary lover ( I want to do that one first!!)
        2. 4 pages essay on what they consider their most important personal virtue (get them to really sweat about picking the right virtue…. That should get them to forget about process… ;-))
        3. 20 pages short story about two female bloggers who meet on a sunny saturday afternoon, in a cozy little cafe, after exchanging comments for a while, and discover something really amazing about each other. (for a little suspense…)

        Don’t quite know how to blind the investigators. Will have to think some more about that. Perhaps they should be remotely observing the process through video camera, without knowing what the subjects are working on?

        Mapping for personality types sounds exciting. We might want to control for simple demographics too…. And map for I.Q. and E.Q….
        And maybe inquire about amount of sleep the night before (yawn…), espresso consumption, monthly hormonal status, sugar intake, alcohol and other psychotropics….

        Geesh….. A scientist’s work is never done…. Gotta sleep….

        Have a good one ! 🙂

      • FS says:

        Ah yes, study design. Tricky that part of it, isn’t it? Trying to ensure that there is nothing intrinsic with the design of the study that influences the participants or the researchers in any way. That is not possible. That said, science moves step by step and is aware of its process limitations, even if the humans within it might not. 😉

        Writers I know tend to be a lot like superstitious hockey players about their writing process, if they have a writing process that they can articulate. Coffee or tea cup in the same place, same writing spot, favourite writing clothes: some sort of ritual before they begin writing. Journalists, corporate communications writers, technical writers, translators might be a little less superstitious, since that kind of writing and how it interacts with self states/aspects of self is a bit different.

        Blinding the investigators is tough. Would we cover up identifiable signs of age and gender and class and culture of the participants? Have them all dressed the same? Dressed differently, but not as themselves? It could be a very interesting experiment. And it might be useful to do it over a time period of say, two years, once a month, to see whether there are things that remain constant and if there are, what they might be, once all of the controllables are controlled for; however, when it comes to individuals, I am not sure that everything can be controlled for. 🙂

        Gathering demographic data is always useful.

        I do wonder if writing folk would make for good study subjects, though. It might be interesting to group subjects according to different groups: beginners. Experienced, but not yet published. Writers making a living from their writing. And it could be broken down further according to the big genres; such as fiction, non-fiction, etc., I don’t know where I’d put academic writers, but I am showing my bias about the output: the process might indeed be the same.

        As for reproducability..that’s tough too. Does following the same process, every time, get the same result in a creative process? In any process. In the world of espresso afficianados there’s something called the GodShot. Everything can be the same: the grind, the pressure, the temperature, and yet, that perfect shot is elusive. There’s that little bubble, or starburst or ineffable something for some people called: the magic happens, the X factor. Maybe it’s how the sun is shining that day. Or not.

        In the interest of time, I shall refrain from talking about me and science and research. 😉

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