Add Visuals to Your Writing (pt. 1)

Add Visuals to Your Writing (pt. 1)

This is a two-part series that will help you reconnect with your inner illustrator and help you create visuals for your essays.

In Part 1, I share:

  1. My journey back to creating,
  2. The benefits of adding visuals to your writing, and
  3. Where to start (which tools you can use to start illustrating).

Part 2 covers:

  1. How to use Procreate,
  2. How to generate ideas, and
  3. My go-to method for creating effective drawings.

Bonus: If you want to create effective illustrations that grab your readers' attention, check out Procreate for Writers below. It's a one-hour guide that will teach you everything you need to know about Procreate – one of the best illustration apps out there.

Procreate for Writers
In one hour you will learn how to:Use Procreate (one of the best illustration apps out there), and Create effective illustrations that grab your readers’ attention.“When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college - that my job w…

Let's dig in!

1. My journey back to creating

"When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college - that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, 'You mean they forget?'" — Howard Ikemoto

It’s a funny thing, right. We all knew how to draw at some stage in our life. We were all creative when we were younger. What happened in between? Did that person disappear? Or is that version of us just buried behind limiting beliefs like ‘I’m not creative’?

Playing it safe

When I was younger, I loved making things. I was particularly fond of building model aeroplanes, tanks and ships. I had a collection of over 50 at one point. I also enjoyed doing pottery. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but it was fun bringing form to something shapeless.

In high school, I lost touch with these creative pursuits. At the age of 16, it became clear that we had to set our sights on university and the world of work and beyond. It was time to get serious. When it came to choosing subjects, I went for maths, science, biology and accounting.

I recall one of my teachers suggesting I should take a subject like art, so I can feel how it feels to “fail” at something.

Obviously, I didn’t take her advice. Why would I willingly introduce failure into my life? Bizarre. Clearly, it was better to study the technical subjects I was good at. There were clear boundaries between right and wrong answers. I could play it safe.

Over time, during my studies and in my career, I moved further down the technical path and further away from the person who liked to make things. There were flickers of joy when I built my own Excel models and dashboard at work, but I definitely didn’t consider myself to be very creative anymore.

The nudge back

When I started writing online, it was the first time in a long time I uncovered the maker buried deep within me.

Crafting an essay felt good. I could finally point to something as mine (I did that, me!). As funny as it sounds, it gave me great pleasure to own something. A little piece of real estate on the internet. A virtual model aeroplane that belonged to me.

At the time, some of my “more creative” writing peers were starting to add illustrations to their writing.

This perked my curiosity. I knew it was a good idea to add images to my essays. People responded well to a nice cover photo that loosely matched the overall theme. But creating your own cover art? This was something new. At that stage, I was only using Unsplash images (stock photos) for my essays’ cover photos.

I specifically remember writer and video producer Tommy Lee creating some magical images like this one:

This is when I knew – I wanted in!

I also wanted to create unique illustrations that nobody else was using. I also wanted to capture my readers’ attention and make them smile.

If Tommy could do it, maybe I could too?

So I asked him for some initial directions. Which apps to use, how to add text and shapes and where to find inspiration. Armed with this small map of the territory, I set off on my visual journey.

Stepping into the drawing arena

I started off by scribbling in the Notes app on my iPad.

My initial sketches were a collection of stick figures and wonky lines. All in black and white. They looked like this:

Here I wanted to illustrate the idea of “controlling the controllables” - a concept from Stoicism where you don’t worry about things outside of your control.

I’m still proud of these sketches and they’re still up on my website because this signifies my first step into the arena. For the first time, I was happy to fail at something, like my teacher suggested I should do all those years ago.

Eventually, through practice and experimentation (failing and learning), I started getting better:

As is (hopefully) clear from the image, this is an illustration about the creative process. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, you can document what you learn. This way, you’ll always have plenty to write about.

By this stage, my creativity was fired up again. I was writing, drawing and making again. I kept leaning into my curiosity and I found other, like-minded creators on a similar journey.

Thanks to that initial nudge from Tommy and a willingness to try things (even if that meant embarrassing myself), I went from wishing I could create illustrations like my writing peers to rubbing shoulders with my creative heroes.

I ended up co-hosting creative workshops with (seriously good) designers like Nate Kadlac, the creator behind The 80/20 Design Challenge and Writers Who Draw.

I also created a community for writers who want to draw (Creating Visuals for Writing) with talented visual storyteller Angie Wang . We have hosted half a dozen workshops for over 100 curious students over the last six months.

Not bad for someone who didn’t see himself as very creative not that long ago.

2. The benefits of adding visuals to your writing

The good news is you can (and you should!) do this too.

Humans are visual creatures.

As I wrote about before in Drawing from Conversation, half of our brains are directly or indirectly devoted to processing visual information.

Given how well we process graphical content, adding visual aids to your writing can be incredibly powerful.

For your readers, the sketches help your ideas land immediately. Adding an illustration can help your readers understand your key point in a couple of milliseconds.

For you as the writer, there are even more benefits:

1. Visuals can increase your luck surface area. Like it or not, scrolling through Instagram or TikTok requires a lower mental load than reading a 750-word essay. Adding illustrations can entice people into your essay and increase the chances of them reading your content.

2. You develop a unique style that is instantly recognizable. This beats pulling something from stock photos or Unsplash. Everyone knows a WaitButWhy sketch when they see one (even if it’s not because of the level of artistry):

3. Creating an illustration forces you to compress your writing. Thinking of a visual that summarizes your essay pushes you to find the key idea - the single image that captures everything you want to say. This can be used as a feedback loop into your writing to remove any fluff that doesn’t fit your core thesis.

4. Drawing helps us embrace Beginner’s Mind. The act of drawing is creative, unstructured and playful. By nature, every sketch is an experiment. It doesn’t matter if you look foolish. What matters is you are willing to develop a new skill, which will stand you in good stead on your creator journey, where you constantly need to learn new things and continuously need to overcome imposter syndrome.

3. Where to start?

The barriers to entry are low.

I illustrate in Procreate on my iPad. It's a cheap ($10 once-off) app packed with a lot of power. Check out Procreate for Writers if you need a one-hour guide that explains all the basics to get you started.

If you don’t own an iPad, there are plenty of other apps and resources that are equally as good. Here are some other options:

  • You can download Procreate Pocket to your phone. It's not as versatile as the iPad app, but good enough to get started.
  • Alternatively, check out the Remarkable 2.
  • Or the Wacom Intuos range. This is a drawing pad that connects to your laptop.

You can also use pen & paper and take a picture of your sketch. Don't let the medium prevent you from starting.

In Part 2, I will share the following:

  1. How to use Procreate,
  2. How to generate ideas, and
  3. My go-to method for creating effective drawings.

If you can’t wait until then, watch this recording of the workshop Angie, Nate and I did towards the end of last year.

Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay.

Originally published at on May 10, 2023.