Tag Archives: visualization

Look, listen and learn: Sites to inspire new writing ideas and creative cross-pollination

Sometimes, when you’re searching for a new non-fiction writing idea or seeking a new avenue of research for a current project, the best place to go to stir fruitful associations isn’t a word-based item, such as a book, magazine or text-heavy website. One of my secrets to successful creative cross-pollination is to shake myself out of my home discipline (writing) and explore other artistic expressions that can spark new approaches or generate new ideas.

Here are a few web links to visual and aural sources of inspiration. See if they don’t help you find your own treasure trove of writing inspiration.



Illustration courtesy of SXC.

I turn to visual links when I need an iconic approach to teach me the most direct way to represent an idea. As I noted a couple of posts back, information visualization has become quite popular in the past decade, influencing business presentations, lobbying campaigns, even journalism.

The VizThink blog recently posted a lovely presentation by David Armano of the Dachis Group (part of a talk he gave at Blogworld 2009) on the value of visual thinking. This to-the-point presentation also provides a nice example of how to turn an information-based project into a visual expression. It’s a great place to start if you have a cool story idea and you want to map it to get a visual perspective on it.

If you’re at a loss to figure out what sort of visual representation might inspire you, you can check out this periodic table of visualization methods which provides examples for dozens of methods.

Sometimes it’s not information you want visualized, it’s life itself. Here are a few of the places I rest my eyes when I want to use them to turbo-charge my writing:

Some of the most outlandish and thought provoking photos of design projects, from bus stops to shoes made of bread, I have ever seen.

It’s the world’s largest free online art community and there’s plenty of mind-stretching illustrations and photographs to see and ponder.

America Creates
A magnificent portal to some of the best American artists and crafters working today. Lovely photos of the artworks, as well as lots of information on the artists themselves. Awesome resource for arts writers, in particular, but a visual feast for us all.



Illustration courtesy SXC.

Music and the spoken word are both good for shaking up the grey matter. I often like to think about what songs would make a nice “soundtrack” to a narrative writing project I’m working on, and the composition process for creating music has many parallels to the writing process (and if the music has lyrics, is intertwined with it). And since writing evolved from the oral traditions of the world, listening to a tale told aloud is a quick way to discover how one’s words impact the audience.

Mashable.com compiled a list of 100+ musicians who are on Twitter. The artists mentioned range from Amy Grant to Weird Al Yankovic and almost anyone in between, including lesser-known artists such as Jason Drake’s one-man project Cassettes Won’t Listen. The list is a fun way to discover new artists or to keep up with the comings or goings of old favorites.

If you want to find new music to listen to, you can use a service like Pandora or Last.fm, but you could also check out StumbleAudio to expand your audio horizons. Kyle Judkins of Lost in Technology blog wrote a nice piece last year about using the service.

If you’re a fan of jazz, Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen blog wrote a series late last year about lessons from the art of jazz. It’s intended for his audience, who reads his blog for tips on how to make better presentations, but it’s about storytelling, nonetheless, and mostly nonfiction storytelling at that. Part one is a review of Wynton Marsalis’ book “Moving to Higher Ground,” and part two deals with jazz’s handling of structure and spontaneity. Both posts have generous video embeds either showing interviews with jazz musicians or performances.

On the spoken-word side of Internet audio, podcasts offer on-demand examples of good or not-so-good storytelling. Podcast Alley and iTunes offer access to hundreds of podcasts. Digital Podcast also offers podcasts and instruction on how to produce podcasts, as well as advice on how to use podcasts and other social media tools to build one’s business.

The question to you: What artistic disciplines or mediums other than writing do you turn to to revitalize your work?

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Cool Tools: 3 Fun Ways to Map Your Story Ideas

I read the interview anthology The New New Journalism a couple of years ago, and one of the many things that struck me while reading it was how consistently the writers interviewed for the book said they didn’t use an “outline” when organizing the mass of material to write long-form narrative nonfiction. Just as consistently, immediately after that declaration, the writer would describe how they DID organize the material—which was frequently a list of topics, high points in the material, turning points in their pursuit of the story—and their approach would basically be an outline in everything but name.

That’s what reminded me how much most of us, writers included, hate our 8th grade English teachers. In the pursuit of teaching us how to write the perfect five-paragraph theme, he or she was often the one who introduced us to the “outline”—that Roman numeral bit of antiquity that works a whole lot better after the piece is finished than while we’re trying to organize it. (I remember learning how to do an outline by studying the structure of finished writings, most often by professional writers, which just seems to buttress my point.)

So outlines are rarely the tool of choice when organizing material, but there are alternatives to a) making a list (and obsessing over it way more than twice) or b) just plunging into writing without structuring the material, which is a little like trying to do a do-it-yourself home improvement project without measuring anything.

I’ve found 3 structuring techniques that go beyond the humble list method, give your writing a visual boost, and can even prepare your finished piece for a world beyond print.

Tool #1: The Mind Map

Popularized by Tony Buzan, mind-mapping has spawned a cottage industry of software that will take your thoughts and provide a visual display of relationships between ideas and where the linkages are. It’s sort of like a 3-D list.

Here’s a link on Tony’s site to a mind-map of a concept from a book by Edward De Bono, Six Thinking Hats.

And here’s a very interesting Flash-based instructional mind-map on how to use mind maps to write an essay.

A related type of mapping is Idea Mapping, based on a book of the same name by Jamie Nast. Her blog has great examples of conceptual maps from a variety of contexts, including maps of books.

The greatest advantage of mind-mapping a nonfiction story is that it makes the whole process less linear, and helps you see multiple relationships between topics and sub-topics in your story. As an editor, I often mind-map as I brainstorm story assignments for my writers; as a writer, it’s been an interesting way to supplement the “list method” of organizing my stories.

Tool #2: Storyboarding

I heard the wonderful journalism instructor Jacqui Banaszynski lecture three years ago at an editor’s conference, and she asserted that the generation coming of age write now has a far more visual, cinematic imagination. She reported that her college students at Mizzou have responded well when she asked them to plot out their nonfiction stories by conceiving each element in a narrative as a “scene.”

Taking that concept one step further is using storyboards to structure one’s writing. Borrowed from the world of filmmaking, storyboards force you to do several things with your writing:

¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material

¨ You have to be explicit about what point of view you are using in your writing, and how and why you shift it during the story

¨ You need to conceive of anecdotes or reportage as scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, that serve to drive the larger story forward

¨ You have to pay attention to the visual and kinesthetic elements of the scenes you are recounting

As one might expect, fiction writers have discovered how useful storyboarding is to their writing. For nonfiction writers, storyboards can help keep a large “cast of characters” organized, reveal gaps in information, uncover points where lesser storylines threaten to derail the main thrust of your article or book, and provide an easy at-a-glance reference for a long manuscript.

This newsletter article from a romance writers group discusses several ways to create a storyboard for a written piece. Lightning Bug’s article on storyboarding is also good, especially because it demonstrates how simple the pictures can be and still be effective. Frankly, spending time creating beautiful graphics isn’t the point—if you can understand what you sketched later, that’s enough!

Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds

One last tool that can help you see patterns in your research is the concept of the tag cloud, which provides a visual representation of the frequency of words or topics in a given piece of writing. Popularized by blogs, tag clouds can be an aid to a user’s search of a site—if a tag that matches their search is big enough, they may be enticed deeper into an online site.

For those of you unfamiliar with tag clouds, here’s one from my delicious.com feed.

Wordle is another interesting tool for finding patterns or repeating elements in your writing. It creates word clouds that look and function much the same as tag clouds.

Here’s an image via Wordle that was created from a newsletter article I wrote a while back about persistence and creativity.

My suggestion for using Wordle to structure your story is to do a free-form brain dump on your material, up to 500 words long, then drop the piece into Wordle and see what patterns emerge.

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