Sketching with Words

When I visited the Louvre, the thing I remember the most (besides the Mona Lisa mosh pit), was the secluded and dimly-lit room where renaissance sketches were kept.

Master painters would prepare to paint by drawing dozens of sketches. The sketches were rough, and contained only the essential element being studied. The overall composition. A facial expression. An eye. Only when the painter was satisfied, would he sketch directly on the canvas.

How else could they have produced their masterpieces?

We would never expect a painter to just start without a plan, and proceed like an inkjet printer: use a tiny brush, start at the top, and scan left-to-right until reaching the bottom. They would very quickly run into problems. Perspective would be off, composition cliched, and postures awkward. Unless the painter were extremely experienced, the piece would fall apart and be impossible to finish.

This is obviously a terrible way to paint.
But we do this all the time, when writing.

We start at the beginning, and hope to get all the way to the end, having at best only a vague outline of what it will all look like.

Worst of all, when we try to write like this, we blame ourselves for not being able to finish.



With painting, it’s easy to scale up a small sketch and add more detail. Gingko allows you to do that with words, by having different “resolutions” of a text, side by side. By sketching with words, you’ll be able to write more easily and create a more coherent final piece.

The Method

Divide your target word count by 2, then that by 3, etc. Stop when you hit a number less than 1. For 2000 words, you’d have: 2000, 1000, 333, 83, 17, 3.

You’ve now built your staircase.

To write, start at the bottom of the staircase, and describe your story with only that many words. When satisfied, proceed to the next step. Continue up the word count staircase, pausing to evaluate at each step.

(If, while doing this, you are struck with inspiration for a detailed scene, description, or line of dialog, just go for it and write it out… with Gingko it’ll be easy to drag it into place later).

Skeptical? Read on…

The Objections

“It’s more writing.”

Actually, you are only writing 71.8% more words. This is not much, considering that first drafts are usually too long anyway.

However, the key is that, at each step, you know your whole story, at some level of detail. You simply can’t get lost. And that means you’re more likely to actually finish.

“There are too many constraints.”

True. But describing your entire novel in ~5 words forces you to dig deep and find the core. Instead of a disconnected rambling narrative, you’ll have a strong steady current throughout the whole.

Also constraints force you to be creative. Your best work will come from trying to say what you need to, in fewer words.

“It’ll take much longer.”

If you believe you write at 42 wpm, why can’t you submit a 60000 word manuscript after 24 hours?

You can’t, because you have to constantly pause to think of what to say next. With this method, you always know what to say at each step. Choosing how to say it is then faster and more enjoyable.

“It’ll be hard to organize.”

This method requires writing several versions of different lengths, and being able to refer to them easily.

Gingko is the only tool designed to do this.

First create a card for your shortest version. Then create a child card with your next version. When your cards get long, you branch into sections.

For an example, you can see the Gingko tree I used to write this page (though it works better for longer pieces).

“But… I still don’t want to!”

There is a deeper objection underlying the others, which is that you might be resisting starting your novel in the first place.

It’s much easier and more fun to simply dive in, and then when you get stuck you can at least say “well, I started my novel”. That might feel better in the short term, but you won’t ever finish that way.

With this step by step approach, you would find yourself with a core story, and several summaries. You would simply have no excuse not to finish.

And not having an excuse can be frightening.

There is no answer to this objection other than, if you don’t truly care about finishing your project, then no method can help you.

A Universal Method

This method might still seem esoteric, but we’re just describing how to “sketch with words”. If it seems strange, it’s because there’s never been a tool that let you do this.

We’ve only used painting as an analogy, but this same process appears in sculpture and other arts. It is actually a universal property, and tied to a beautiful mathematical theory called Fourier transforms (which also explain how we hear, see, smell, is found in quantum mechanics, in holography, in compression algorithms).

But that is the subject of another post.

5 thoughts on “Sketching with Words

  1. On Constraints
    When I teach business writing, I often use constraints to help the participants to sum up what’s going on:
    – Haikus (well, not real ones. Just the 5-7-5 syllable bastard version)
    – 6 word stories
    – Tweets

    It’s very interesting to have 12 people from the same team or department sitting around a table and let them write six word stories about what their unit does. If they read the stories, you can see a lot of astonishment, delight and ahas around the table.

  2. I can see the art sketching, could we have a closer look at the fiction example? The actual sketching with words, ie the Romeo and Juliet example?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *