How Artists Learn to Write

"How Artists Learn to Write" by Mary Edwards, Ph.D., Career & Life Coach for Artists

When you write about your art, you leave the world of images and enter the world of words. Going from the visual to the verbal plane is a profound shift in perspective. It is not surprising that many artists resist.

Something happens when you try to write about your art. You procrastinate because it feels awkward. You fear that words will destroy the fragile integrity of your work, or reduce it to something less than it is, or prevent you from making something new.

Try to understand where these feelings come from. Making art and writing about it are profoundly different ways of communicating what you know. One does not replace or destroy the other. When you write well about your art, you open a door to all the people who live in the world of words. 

Writing about your art expands your audience. Think about your experience in a museum when you discover an unfamiliar artist. You might look at the images first, but then you turn to the curator’s words on the wall. When they are carefully crafted, the words illuminate the art, and you are grateful. 

Writing, like art-making, is a creative process that can be learned. The process develops in stages, where one step leads to the next.   

1. Discover what you want to say

2. Create good conditions for writing

3. Write a messy first draft

4. Revise, edit, and polish

Discover what you want to say

To begin, don’t stare at a blank screen or an empty notebook. Look at your art. First, look through your bodies of work. Review images as well as actual works, and think about what they have in common. Look for patterns and themes you have repeated over time or across different series. Write down a few words or phrases that capture your intentions.     

Then pay attention to individual works of art. Choose one or two of your favorites and notice the details. How do they convey meaning? You might note your use color or composition or choice of materials. Again, write down a few features that are worth noting.

In addition to taking notes, you can start talking. Talking and writing are both verbal skills, so you can use talking to jump-start the writing process. Talk to yourself, to a friend, or into a tape recorder. Get some words out where you can hear them and write them down.


Create good conditions

As a visual artist trying to learn how to write, pay special attention to your setting, materials and process. Find an appealing place to write. It might be a corner in your apartment or a table at your favorite café. Choose a place you like to be.  

Then think about writing materials. If your brain shuts down when your fingers hit a keyboard, consider using an old-fashioned pen and notebook or a stick of charcoal and a sketchbook. These implements help you make a physical connection between your hand and your brain.

Make your writing process portable. Even if you start at a keyboard, always have writing materials with you. When you’re actively engaged in the writing process, new thoughts will pop into your mind when you least expect them. Make your words easy to capture.


Create that messy first draft

Your goal is to write a page or less about your art. Think of it as a new artist statement, written in the first person. The process is messy because you won’t find the right words until you write down a lot of almost-right words. Just as a toddler learns to walk, you stumble as you go.

As you write, your ideas begin to form on the page, in fits and starts and repetitions. Don’t try to find the perfect phrase. Just keep writing, using your notes but expanding upon them, developing what you want to say. It is hard because you are going deep. Don’t edit or polish at this stage. 

Work for an hour or so, and then stop. Put your writing aside, leave it alone. Don’t even read it over. Take a walk or do something else that keeps you in motion. Your brain will keep searching for better words, which is why you have a mobile writing process, so you can easily keep track of new thoughts as they occur.  

Wait a day and then return to that messy first draft. You’ll start to see the shape of what you want to say. Type your page on a document you will be able to print out in the next stage.   


Revise, edit, and polish

When you have a first draft that makes sense to you, print it. Your words look different on the screen vs. the printed page. Revise again. Editing at this stage is a pruning process, where you cut off the dead parts to help the living plant grow. 

Now you can ask for feedback from friends who are good writers, or from professionals. Ask them to tell you if your ideas are clear, or if there are awkward or confusing places. Ask whether the writing flows. Good writing is organized so that one idea leads to the next. Incorporate useful suggestions. 

You learn to write by writing, just as you learn to play the violin by playing it. Honor the stages of this creative process, and you’ll gradually become a better writer. 


Mary Edwards, Ph.D.

Mary Edwards is a Career & Life Coach for Artists, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She works with artists across the United States and all over the world.

Mary has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and received her coach training from the College of Executive Coaching.  She brings a unique combination of business knowledge, art world experience, and professional coaching skill to her practice.

To receive Free Tips for Artists (twice a month), visit and click on “Mailing List Sign-Up.”  If you would like to schedule a time to talk, see “Contact Mary.”


Career & Life Coach for Artists 

Instragram: coachingforartists.maryedwards





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