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Monday, February 1, 2010

Three Things Writers Can Learn from Photographers

A few years ago I discovered I loved taking photos. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between a snapshot and a professional-looking photograph. Now, a lot of people (aspiring photographers as well as non-photographers) think that what makes a pro photo is the equipment, but in most cases, they’re wrong.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, photos with a $1200 dSLR camera and a $1700 Luxury lens will be almost indiscernible from those taken with a $150 point-and-shoot.

The same is true with writing. It doesn’t matter whether you write with a $200 fountain pen or a pencil worth less than a penny if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Here are a few keys to great photography – and what those keys can teach us as writers.

1. Keep the good stuff. Throw out or hide the rest.

Ever have a friend show you vacation photos? It’s boring. You see shot after shot of scenery, landmarks, and people you may not even know.

Yet you might be the kind of person who enjoys going to the art gallery to see great photos of scenery, landmarks, or people you probably don't know.

What’s the difference?

At the gallery, you only see the best stuff.

Even great photographers take bad shots. Lots of them, in most cases. What makes the photographer great is that he doesn’t share the bad pictures. He spends time going through each and every shot and throws out (or at least keeps private) the ones that aren’t fantastic.

You’ll write bad sentences. Lots of them, probably. In fact, I’d argue that sometimes we need to write bad prose in early drafts. Sometimes we’re not going to be satisfied until we’ve gotten those clichéd phrases, purple prose, and ridiculous dialogues out on paper. But that doesn’t mean you have to subject your readers to that stuff.

What will make you a great writer is learning to tell good writing from bad and only showing the good writing to other people. Granted, we often need crit partners to help us recognize problems, but nothing should go out to your crit partners until you’ve done the very best you could with the material.

Some people disagree with me and believe they should be able to send the roughest of the rough to their crit partners. But the rougher it is, the more time your crit partners are going to spend on things you could have fixed – typos, grammar, run-on sentences. That may mean they never give you the kind of criticism that’s hard to hear, but it also means you’ll never grow as a writer. So only show them your best work…and then listen to them to make it even better until you’re ready to send out only your best stuff to agents and publishers.

2. Capture the most important moments. Don’t bother sharing the ones that don’t matter.

I often spend hours at the zoo photographing the same animal. While I’m there, dozens of other people come through and take photos of the animal sleeping, facing the wrong direction, or half-hidden behind the objects around it. The average person doesn’t care – he got a picture of the animal and can say he was at the zoo, and that’s all that matters. But the photographer knows that nobody is going to pay for that kind of picture. Instead, she needs to capture and share the moments that show the animal’s personality and true nature.

Do the same thing in your writing. Don’t bother showing us your character getting out of bed, eating breakfast, or choosing her outfit for the day unless it shows us something important about her personality and nature.

3. Get in close and find out what’s behind the eyes.

The average person doesn’t get nearly as close to his or her subject as he should, while good photographer gets in close enough to not only see the subject’s eyes, but also the feelings behind them.

Don’t just show us what’s going on in the scene when you write. Show us how it affects your characters. What’s behind their eyes? How can you be sure the reader notices it?


Stina said...

Great post! I've never really thought of it that way, even though that's exactly how I approach my photography--and my writing. I'm definitely going to have to link this to my blog in an upcoming post. :D

Melanie Hooyenga said...

LOVE this.

I'm a graphic designer by day and have a good eye, but I used to be lazy about my photographs. Then my husband made a comment that I can't take a good picture, and since then I've made the extra effort and my photos are much better than his.

I'll keep this in mind while writing!

Suzette Saxton said...

I love this approach! What a unique idea. (Love the photos, too!)

Jess of All Trades said...

A love this comparison, especially now that I'm getting more into photography! Composition, composition. I love that so many rules are universal to different arts...

DL Hammons said...

Excellent analogy! I only wish I were more visual, so I could recognize 'the shot' when it comes around.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post! I'm gonna bookmark this!!!

Stephanie said...

Great post!!! I am a huge lover of photography!!

Henri said...


Nice idea for a post. As a photographer, who has recently discovered that it is easier to make money writing (for me at least) than with a camera I found your post to be a very interesting read. Not too long ago I wrote an article about how to take good pictures with a one-time use camera. Expensive cameras will get you "better" pictures, but only in certain ways like sharper image quality and all that.

Good luck,

Jil said...

How very true! My husband is a commercial photographer and l know all those slides tossed aside for the one good one to be used in the ad. Now, with digital, it's different but still necessary. All excellent tips for us writers - especially about showing our best work to our crit. groups. I often whip something out quicky just to have something to read - not good.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Good analogies! Although I have to say both photos are better than what I end up with after a trip to the zoo!

Unknown said...

Great photo! I hope it's not a bad sign that I'm a terrible photographer. :)

Elena DeRosa said...

This post really popped for me. As a photographer I totally get the "lousy" shots and have no problem hitting that delete button. As a writer, I've been holding on to more "crap" than I probably should be. I'm going to approach my revision with this post in mind. Thanks!

Shelby said...

liked this.. I'm an amateur photogger. and this is good stuff.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks to everyone who commented -- always enjoy hearing your thoughts!

DL -- I don't think you need to be more visual. I think photographers have a good "eye," while writers need a good "ear" -- they need to be able to hear when things sound unnatural, melodramatic, boring, etc.

Henri -- agreed, though sadly, I have seen people who own extremely expensive photography equipment and only use auto settings and constantly end up with overexposures, underexposures, flat flash pics, and so on. Knowledge is power!

Sherrie -- lol on the photos. Well, I threw out the TRULY horrid shots from that day. So I had to sift through what I had left for a bad shot and a good shot. :)

And Kristi -- I'm sure it's not a problem if you're a terrible photographer.

Thanks again to everyone who commented!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice from a unique perspective! Thanks :)

Joanne said...

Great thoughts here. I always find that looking at a subject through the camera lens gives a different perspective than the naked eye. To bring this "lens" perspective to the page definitely adds layer to the story.

Alyssa Kirk said...

Great analogy! Thanks for the perspective!