Rendering intent, in all its incarnations

Originally published on The Pastry Box May 3, 2015.

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember.

I’ve been writing sci-fi/fantasy since I was eleven, when my friends and I wrote the most age-appropriately-atrocious Piers Anthony fanfic a person can imagine.

(No, worse than that. Keep imagining.)

(There you go.)

(See, told you it was bad.)

Science fiction made me interested in programming. Programming led me to the web, and that, in turn, to the Design discipline of Information Architecture.

Throughout it all, I’ve continued to write. In fact, I’ve continued to write the same freaking novel. I also wrote most of another novel, some short stories, some middling stuff, and, of course, nonfiction works like those posted here on The Pastry Box.

This past weekend, I attended a writing retreat — a reward for the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter I backed last summer. It was a seven-person hands-on workshop/conference in a not-actually-haunted cabin. The retreat included short-story authors, anthology and magazine editors, podcasters, a book sales and marketing manager, novel authors, budding cartoonists, a singer/songwriter, interviewers, and a literature curators/academic librarian… Like designers, writers tend to wear a lot of hats.

We talked about the industry, how to submit work professionally, how to improve our craft (both individually and as a whole), what kinds of challenges exist, and what kinds of opportunities drive us forward. We talked about our histories as writers, and our futures. We kicked around ideas that will never make it off the ground. We wrote a horror story on Twitter, live. We ate (boy did we eat, the food was fantastic), took walks, drank bourbon, told stories, and wrote.

The more I design, the more I want to write. The more I write, the more I understand how to design. If, as Jared Spool says, Design is the rendering of intent, then, for me, writing is the ultimate act of design: rendering intent using only the medium of the written word.

When I was an inexperienced designer, I saw a lot of posters like these that described the difference between art and design as the difference between interpretation and understanding, talent and skill, inspiration and motivation, and messaging. I don’t buy it. Maybe I’m doing the “art” of creating writing incorrectly. If my writing inspires, it’s because I intended inspiration; if it showcases talent, it’s because I honed that talent into a skill. A quality editor isn’t going to accept a poorly-written short story by a “talented” author any more than a quality creative director will accept a shoddily-designed web process. Too many of the traits we attribute to poor design we label as “art”, which is a disservice to hard-working artists.

Excellent writing requires all the skills that excellent information architecture does. It must be concise and clear in its intent. Only those things that must be said are said, and nothing more. Flourishes, if included, are intentional. The structure must be obvious in its use, but invisible to the audience. Whether the reader is intended to follow a single path or choose their own adventure, the wayfinding and labeling should be effective and efficient. Excellent writing also requires critique, polishing, iteration, and sometimes throwing the whole thing out and starting over once or twice (or six times). Excellent writers must know when to be professional and when to be personal, how to market their work, how to receive and deliver an effective critique, and how to avoid burnout.

These aren’t lessons I brought from writing to design. They are lessons I learned while designing that I was only peripherally aware apply to my writing. A good editor is no more likely to buy a poorly designed story than a good client will buy a poorly designed website. A good critique group can make the difference between publication and rejection, between hitting the goals and missing them.

In 2010, I went to An Event Apart in Seattle, and it changed my life. For the first time, I understood my role in design and how I could improve.

Last weekend I went to the Uncanny Cabin, and it did the same. I now understand how I can become both a better writer, and a better designer.

I’m fantastically grateful to Lynne (and Michael) Thomas, Deb Stanish, Michael Underwood, Sarah Pinsker, A. C. Wise, and Fran Wilde for the opportunity to do something I’ve always loved to do better.

As a designer, if you have the opportunity to improve your hobbies — whatever they are — take those opportunities and run with them.