October 4, 2012

Writing as Sculpture: Do You Build or Carve?

Michelangelo's David sculpture at night with text "Writing as Sculpture"

Writing is an art form, and yet I don’t usually think of myself as an artist. Maybe that’s because when I think of art, I think of visual arts (I draw stick figures) or musical arts (I don’t play an instrument or compose music). Logically, I know there are plenty of other forms of art, but I have to remind myself to include them—along with writing—in the “art” category.

Recently, I’ve been mentally comparing the different forms of art because I have a guest post at P.W. Creighton’s blog this week. As I was brainstorming topics for that post, it occurred to me how all types of artistic endeavors have the concept of a muse or a gut feel for when something is working—or not. So then I started thinking about how we could use that general “artistic muse” concept to help us with our writing.

I came up with a blog post with tips for using other forms of art to help us when we’re stuck with writer’s block. I hope you get a chance to stop by and check it out.

Phillip has another post on his blog that ties into this “writing as art” idea, and I saved that link because I loved the concrete way he got me to think about how much writing is similar to other forms of art. He compares writing to sculpture:

“The plot is sculpted with care to gradually reveal the premise to the audience… Creating a plot is no different than a sculptor taking chisel to stone. The idea is in place and it is now just a question of what steps are needed to make it tangible?”

Phillip talks in that post about creating an outline and how writers “sculpt” an outline. *shrug* I’ve been more of a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants) lately, so I look at this sculpting idea a bit differently.

There are many different kinds of sculpture, and they require different techniques. Some sculptors take a material, such as clay, and build it up, little by little, until the end result matches the picture in their head. Others, especially those working in solid materials like granite or marble, must work in the opposite direction, taking a block and chipping away at it until it looks the way they desire.

My pantsing means that I draft by building a story little by little, but then I edit by carving away at all the bits that don’t fit. The scenes that didn’t quite play into the bigger story like they might have, the conversations between characters that went in circles as I was trying to figure out what they’d say, the emotional insights for an arc that ended up going in a different direction.

So I’m both a building sort of sculptor and a carving sort of sculptor. I suspect many writers are similar, but I wonder if others approach their writing in a different way.

Maybe some carve first and build second. Maybe some build and carve and build and carve. And maybe still others would compare their work to kinetic sculptures, like mobiles that fluidly move and change. Taking the comparison a step further, maybe fan fiction is like relief sculpture, where a carving is made on the side of a bigger structure.

Why is any of this important? Because like I talk about in my guest post, I’ve decided that thinking about how writing compares to other art forms can help us work out problems.

If a scene isn’t working and we can’t figure out why, maybe stepping back and looking at our writing like a sculptor will reveal whether it needs to be built up or carved away. Or if an emotional scene is reading flat, maybe thinking like a music composer will help us focus on which emotional notes we need to hit harder or draw out longer. Or if the tone of a scene feels off, maybe thinking like a painter will point out where the scene is too light or too dark.

In short, if you’re anything like me and don’t usually think about writing as being a “true” art form, maybe it’s time to change our attitude. *smile* We all know writing isn’t an exact science, but even beyond that, the techniques other types of artists use to solve their problems just might help us too.

Do you think of writing as an art form? Which art forms do you think writing is most similar to? Are you a builder or a carver or both? Have you ever used other artistic techniques to help your writing?

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Rinelle Grey

I also build first, then carve later. Sometimes with a little extra building involved throughout the process. Interesting concept.

Gene Lempp

Writing is, without a doubt, an art form. Anyone can write. Anyone can paint. Anyone can sculpt. However, without a knowledge of the craft that goes into each of these art forms they will most likely be doing it on their own, unseen by all but close friends and family (minus the prodigy’s but there are always anomaly’s).
When anyone can do a task, but only those that have spent the time to hone it into a craft can do it successfully in (for) the public – then it is art. Writing, yep, art.
I love this concept, while I had considered parts of it, I’d never thought of the sculpting or composing angles, which make a great deal of sense.
As for my style, I’d say I intermingle building and carving when I plot and create. Lots of carving at the beginning, a fresh cube of marble and each choice slices off part. Pick a genre? A Theme? A character? Each of these removes options, therefore, carving away some of the marble. Once the main carving is done, then its time to build with surgical adjustments on the carving side.
Great post, Jami – informative and thought-provoking 🙂


I mainly build. Sometimes I’ll move something, and sometimes while in the middle of building, I’ll find a scene or two that’s not quite right and rebuild it, but either way, I don’t find myself carving much.

…Unless I happen to be writing about a topic I know a lot about. Then I might end up going overboard and having to cut parts that are truly points for another article. 🙂

Buffy Armstrong

Thanks for the inspriation, Jami! Great post. 🙂


I’m pretty much the same as you:

“My pantsing means that I draft by building a story little by little, but then I edit by carving away at all the bits that don’t fit. The scenes that didn’t quite play into the bigger story like they might have, the conversations between characters that went in circles as I was trying to figure out what they’d say, the emotional insights for an arc that ended up going in a different direction.”

Basically I pants until I finish the entire story (even if it’s 400 pages or longer), then I mass edit. And I mean MASS edit. Lol.


Congrats to you on all the work setting up your site and feeds after all the hoopla about Feedburner. Good for you! Your hard work is appreciated. Your article made me think of something (be patient, my mind goes in weird directions:) I’m not sure if the article below is the exact sculpture I remember reading about. From the Ubiquitous Wikipedia Tacca’s last public commission was the colossal equestrian bronze of Philip IV, said to have been based on the iconography of a lost painting by Rubens;[2] it was begun in 1634 and shipped to Madrid in 1640, the year of his death. The sculpture, atop a complicated fountain composition, forms the centerpiece of the façade of the Royal Palace. The daring stability of the statue was calculated by Galileo Galilei: the horse rears, and the entire weight of the sculpture balances on the two rear legs—and, discreetly, its tail— a feat that had never been attempted in a figure on a heroic scale, of which Leonardo had dreamed. —– OK, so what’s my point? Creativity still has to function in the real world. A house can be designed wildly in your head, but it still has to stand up to a windstorm or it’s junk. A sculpture can be expressive, but if it won’t bear up under its own weight, all that creativity is wasted. Even painting and writing has certain “laws of physics.” These can be pushed to all creative limits, but if you push too far,…  — Read More »


I draw a lot -I have an illustrations blog – and I sometimes like to take pictures; recently I got interested into filming, which I wish now to work on more. I think it is in fact very important to use other artistic medium is you feel like it, so you have less of a one-way vision of life and of your writing. It did prove to help me a lot put things in perspectives, enlarge my scopes and not lock myself into writing.


[…] Gold talks about the writing process as compared to sculpting. Since I’m mostly a pantser (write by the seat of my pants with no outline), I do a little of […]

Martina Boone

Hi Jami,

This is such a great analogy. I’ve never thought of the proess in terms of building or carving, although I’ve often likened writing to sculpture. Finding the shape of the story, getting the rough shape, then using increasingly sharper tools to work in finer and finer detail. I’m not sure that it matters as much whether you build the rough shape or intuit it from within the larger block of artistic material, as long as we don’t waste too much time polishing something that isn’t structurally sound.

As always when I stop by here, you’ve given me something to ponder 🙂



Debra Eve

I’ve always been in awe of Michelangelo’s observation, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Not me. I build, slowly and laboriously. Sometimes too slowly and laboriously. Digital photography has helped me alot. I think nothing of throwing out 50 shots to get the one I want, so why do I labor over just the right word — in the first draft? I’m finally learning that over-building has a lot to do with perfectionism 🙂


[…] Writing as Sculpture: Do You Build or Carve? by Jami Gold. […]


[…] Writing As a Sculpture: Do You Build or Carve? by Jami Gold […]


[…] very much like painting. However, if the blogosphere is to be believed, it’s even more like sculpting. Yes, all this vocabulary of carving out and polishing makes the analogy particularly strong: […]

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