Writing is like Retouching
Table of Contents
Clarity is the Goal
A few years ago, I dove deep into learning how to retouch photos. Retouching is a powerful tool that’s been wielded irresponsibly on magazine covers and advertisements. It’s easy to over retouch and render a photo unrealistic or bizarre because the subject is missing awkwardly missing a part of their body.
And with the many apps that claim to be able to retouch with a tap, it’s easier to call out the vain attempts to make someone look better than they are.
But done well, you won’t notice what was retouched, it simply brings out the full potential of an image. It captures the essence of a moment, a scene, or a face and communicates exactly what the photographer intended.
Writing, especially non fiction writing, has one goal: clarity. It’s tempting to use writing as a way to impress people with your intelligence or breadth of vocabulary, but if they don’t understand you, or worse bored with what they’re reading, your writing has failed.
Learn The Rules, Don’t Argue Over it
Photoshop is the industry standard program to use to retouch a photo. When you start learning how to use Photoshop, for every one tool you learn to use, say to get rid of a stain on a shirt, there are four other tools that can give you the same result. There are countless threads and Youtube videos arguing which tool is better, but the bickering doesn’t create a better photo.
Grammar is the Photoshop of writing. It’s important to learn but don’t waste time arguing about it.
One exception is if you love to geek out on it. That’s different. I love to show Becky the before/after I retouch a photo and see her go, “Ooooh!” A good friend of mine is a writer, and he lights up whenever we get into the nitty gritty of grammar.
My point is, tools are meant to be used learn it to use it to make something, don’t sit around endlessly organizing them or talking about them.
Finding Your Own Voice
When it comes to teaching Photoshop, mediocre teachers and tutorials recommend formulas, exact numbers and settings for how to take a stain out of a shirt. They don’t explain how the tool is being used or why you’d want to use it. And the formula’s rarely work because each photo is different, each retoucher is different, each outcome is different.
You’ll know if a retoucher knows what they are doing, not by the formulas they punch in, but there’s a sense of play and experimentation in the way they work.
Idioms are the formulas of writing. Lazy writing is predictable writing. Great writing is alive. Someone once recommended Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” because you can see how much fun she had writing the book. I think that’s the greatest compliment someone can give to any creator.
Write for the Journey, not the Destination
Finally writing is like retouching because you’re never actually done retouching a photo. There’s always something more you can do. On the extreme end, retouchers can spend 40 hours retouching one photo for beauty campaigns. But it’s still perfect. If the retoucher had another 40 hours, they could keep going, but there’s the next photo to retouch, and campaigns to be launched.
Perfection isn’t the goal when learning how to retouch or write. That summer I learned how to retouch I went through hundreds and hundreds of photos. The tension I mentioned about writing daily is just that, I’m in the “summer” or getting this writing thing right.
Follow Along Upstream
And feel a little less alone on your quest to your most courageous work.