A Picture is Worth How Many Words?

While kicking around the interwebs yesterday, I ran across a post on Tumblr lamenting the fact that writing wasn’t worth as much as art. Keeping in mind that the blogger was a fanfic writer, she made some good points – namely that it’s much easier for an artist to make money with fanart vs writing fanfic. Her specific examples were at conventions or online, where artsy types could easily command $20 or more for quick commissions, dozens of people standing in line to put in an order to get their character rendered in that artist’s style.

Her main argument centered around the idea that as visual creatures, people could determine instantly whether or not they liked a piece of artwork and therefore the value of a piece could also be determined instantly. (Which may or may not be true.)  This, as opposed to a piece of writing (in her case, a piece of fanfic – let’s say 1000 words == a pencil sketch), which requires more thought and a bigger time investment to determine if the reader should continue. (And this is a really important part for anyone’s writing – *this* is why editors/agents/etc say you have to snag your reader on that first page. Most people don’t have time to waste. If they’re not instantly intrigued by your premise, you’re going to lose a lot of them.)

Her frustration stemmed from the fact that she couldn’t really offer fanfic commissions (and I’m going to ignore the argument of whether or not it’s proper to be making money off of something that isn’t yours) – or that if she did, no one would buy one. I was okay with most of the post until she stated that although good writing could be difficult, with enough practice, *everyone* can write –  therefore writing requires less skill than an artist. (i.e. an artist’s skills are more innate and therefore of a higher value because not everyone can draw well – or at least that’s the gist that I got.)

Aside from the fact that she’s shooting herself in the foot by this argument – i.e. if she’s admitting that the value of her own work is so much less than the art skills she wished she could emulate, she’s defeating herself before she even starts – and the fact of the matter is she’s comparing apples and oranges.

The mechanisms of interpretation are far different animals. A brilliant artist can convey a tremendous amount of information in a finite space – but it’s a captured moment in time. We don’t always know what happened before or after that moment. We can guess, but we can’t always *know*. (And sometimes that’s a great thing – it requires us to ruminate about what we’re seeing, which can lead to a greater appreciation of the piece).

A piece of writing can capture that same moment – but a different facet of it. We can see what a character is thinking, for example. What they’re feeling. Where they may be going. Sometimes knowing the events that lead up to that moment can evoke a far different emotion than just the picture. Also? Words can travel. I can share a passage of my favorite book or poem by memory, or copy the words down. I might not always have the ability to display a picture.

Neither of these is right or wrong, by the way – just that the approach of media consumption changes with the format of the media.

Darchala  and I chatted about it over IM last night. As an artist, Dar gets lots of commission requests. But part of what people are paying for is her interpretation of their characters. If I come to her and say, “I want a picture of my character doing x” and then give her all the details of what my character looks or acts like, she can take that information and work with it.

But writing wise? Who would do that? Fanfic  is a tricky situation. If it’s fanfic based on a game, then the writer has something to work with – 20 or more hours immersed into a gaming world with characters being voiced is actually fairly easy in some ways. You have a good idea of how the characters should react, and readers already know what they look like and sound like. Half your work is done for you. But to be honest, I wouldn’t commission someone to write anything like that anyway. As the blogger stated, most people *can* write well enough for their own personal use.

But fanfic based on someone else’s written characters? (I’m talking original stuff- i.e. not already established book universes.) If I take the same example as Darchala and approach a writer with information about a certain incubus – give the writer all the details I know about him and then say “Can you write me a story with him?”

It wouldn’t really work. I can’t reasonably describe the sheer amount of stuff going on in my character’s head well enough to have someone else write it. And why would I go through that amount of effort when I could just write it myself?

*shrugs*

In either case, making money probably shouldn’t be the deciding factor in choosing to write. I would bet that most artists would continue to draw/paint/etc, even if they weren’t getting paid for it (and most aren’t.) Same with people who write.  There’s room for both types of media in the world.

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3 Responses to A Picture is Worth How Many Words?

  1. Ashelynn Hetland says:

    You are so correct. I love this post so much I read it twice. It also made me think of how some writers are arguing that traditional publishing is going to die out and if you want to be published, do it yourself. Why can't both types of publishing exist? Why must it always be one is better than the other.

    Anyways, fantastic post. 

  2. Jeffe Kennedy says:

    Very interesting post. I agree that a great deal of both visual art and writing are learned skills. Study enough, practice enough and you'll have the craft to do the job. But for that extra something that makes it come alive? The "voice" as it were – that doesn't automatcially come into play. It could be argued that both fanfic and fanart are both more on the artisan side of the equation, rather than art, since it's not born of the craftperson's own creativity, but built on someone else's.

  3. mynfel says:

    You're absolutely correct. I had meant to point out the "voice" thing as well, but got distracted.  There definitely is something there that separates technical brilliance from an emotional impact, and it can't be taught. You either find it or you don't. 

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