Cheryl Reif headshotI'm a fantasy writer, daydreamer, and science geek currently based in sunny Boulder, Colorado. I have my PhD in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (MCDB, if you want less of a mouthful). I put that degree to use creating detailed explanations for magic systems and mythological creatures; and, of course, the science background let me write about cool science and nature discoveries!

Join me Mondays and Thursdays to explore storytelling and the creative life—and how the old "rules" no longer apply.

It's time to rewrite the rules that hold us back. Don't you agree?

Getting Practical: 3 Ways Writers Can Use Sketchnotes

Based on comments from y’all–not to mention which posts get the most traffic on this blog–I’ve made a cool discovery: Although you seem to appreciate posts on theory, what you REALLY like are posts that dig into specific examples.


 Photos: Jaro LarnosSheltie Boy, State Library of South Aus, & Woodleywonderworks

Practice a Concept–OWN the Concept

Makes sense to me! I don’t really understand a concept until I try it out six ways from Sunday and make it my own, if you know what I mean :).

So I thought I’d try an experiment. On Mondays, I’ll continue to bring you information and tips about writing, creativity, and novel ways to connect with readers. Thursdays, we’ll dive into specifics–specific examples, specific applications, specific challenges, and so on, that have to do with the week’s topic. Starting with (drumroll, please…) sketchnoting!

Sketchnoting is a powerful tool for writers & other creatives–I dare you to give it a try!


Add Sketchnotes to Your Creative Process: 3 Ideas

Idea 1: Use sketchnotes to create a “mind map” of conference sessions, lectures, or other presentations.

How? Simply apply basic sketchnoting principles as described by sketchnoting authority Mike Rohde in the Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking.

Who should try this? Creating this type of sketchnote could be a good fit for you if:

  • You want to start training your brain to think visually and symbolically
  • You want to practice the sketchnoting process without simultaneously trying to generate content
  • You want to share conference or meeting notes with others
  • You want to create a visual reminder of conference, meeting, or other information that you can refer to later

Example: I created this sketchnote…


…to help remind me of the great concepts in Simon Sinek’s inspirational talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” The result is a one-page source of inspiration that I’ll add to my writing binder. It captures the core ideas in a way that will jog my memory when I need to recharge.

Idea 2: Use sketchnotes to create a visual representation of an EXISTING character or character arc.

IMO, it’s easier to organize existing information in a visual format than it is to generate new ideas during the sketchnoting process. That means you’ll probably have an easier time creating a well-organized sketchnote if you  have a clear idea of who your character is before you start.

However, the very process of sketchnoting activates different brain regions than writing text, so it’s likely that this exercise will generate new ideas along the way. If so, run with them! The purpose of sketchnoting isn’t to create beautiful art (see my examples!) but to create a visual representation of thoughts and ideas. Let your creativity come out and play–get messy–and make the process work for you!

Who should try this? You might want to try this exercise if:
  • You want to see the “big picture” for a specific character (or setting, or whatever else you decide to use in this exercise)
  • You have a reasonably clear idea of who your character is–for example, her personality, flaws, strengths and weaknesses, etc.
  • You want to create a one-stop reference to help remind yourself of important character details–such as who he knows, his mannerisms, his physical appearance, information he’s uncovered at various points in the story, etc.
Example: I created this character sketch for one of the secondary characters in my current work-in-progress (WIP)–as a result, condensing 10+ pages of freewriting and notes into a single reference page.

Idea 3: Blend sketchnoting concepts with mind mapping to brainstorm a NEW character, character arc, scene, or an entire plot.

Who should try this? This could be a good fit for you if:
  • You feel comfortable translating words and ideas into simple symbols
  • You trust yourself not to fixate on creating beautiful art at the expense of generating ideas
  • You’re familiar with mind mapping
  • Or you like trying lots of new things at once–bring on sketchnotes, mind mapping, and more!
Example: I wanted to explore the idea that the villain in my WIP is the hero in his own story. What would that look like? How would the traits that make him a villain, from my main character’s point of view, make him a hero from his own? Here’s the result…
Your turn: Do you have some story notes that you want to organize? Or maybe it’s time you finally got around to that online class you’ve been meaning to take…a perfect opportunity to practice your sketchnoting skills! Try out sketchnoting–and be sure to share the results in the comments, below!

3 Reasons Sketchnotes Can Level Up Your Creative Process

tsh-cover-175pxDo you ever finish a brainstorming session feeling like you’ve just rehashed the same old ideas on new sheets of paper?

Does your freewriting exercise stall before you hit the second paragraph?

Does your plot refuse to twist, or do your characters insist on behaving predictably?

Maybe you need a creative kick-start! I have an awesome–and fun–new tool for you to add to your creativity toolbox:



What the Heck Are Sketchnotes?

Sketchnoting authority Mike Rohde, author of the Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, puts it this way:

Sketchnotes are rich visual notes created from a mix of handwriting, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes, and visual elements like arrows, boxes & lines.”

Sketchnotes arose from Mike’s frustration with the standard note-taking process. He was filling notebooks with pages of detailed, text-only notes, and then never referring to them again.

Sound familiar? How many of us have notebooks full of notes from conferences and meetings, notebooks that now gather dust on shelves (**raises hand**)? Perhaps worse, how many of us have notebooks filled with valuable story ideas or character descriptions, similarly gathering dust because sorting through them is too daunting a task?

Sketchnotes focus on capturing BIG IDEAS and representing them VISUALLY. By using symbols and shapes to capture concepts, sketchnotes can convey information more succinctly than text alone. The way information is organized on the page can help communicate a hierarchy of ideas or logical progression.

The end result is a “visual map,” Mike says. Sketchnotes “are built from meaningful thoughts and ideas your mind collects and squirrels away….”

In other words, when you translate ideas into sketchnotes, you store them in a format that’s easy to review and access later.

Sketchnotes let you translate ideas into a format that’s QUICK TO SCAN and EASY TO REVISIT. 


Cool, right? But that’s not the only benefit of sketchnoting–as you might’ve guessed based on the the title of this post.

Sketchnoting Is About PROCESS as Much as PRODUCT

Sketchnoting isn’t just about creating a beautiful end product–which is why you don’t need to be an artist to start creating your own sketchnotes. Sketchnoting helps you think differently.

Sketchnoting Involves the Visual Areas of the Brain 

The process of creating a sketchnote actually uses different parts of the brain than simply writing text–it fires up both your visual and your verbal brain regions. This can help you see new relationships between ideas and make connections you might not make otherwise.

Making new connections is crucial for creativity.


Sketchnoting Requires Handwriting

Sketchnoting requires handwriting, and handwriting has been shown to help thinking and processing more than simply tapping on a keyboard. According to Virginia Berninger, in her 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journalthat may be because handwriting “activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and “working memory” regions than typing”.

Handwriting also seems to enhance your memory for what you’re writing–which is valuable whether you’re taking notes at a conference or taking notes for your novel’s climax!

Sketchnoting Invokes a Playful Attitude

Sketchnoting, which involves doodling different shapes and colors on the page, naturally invokes a playful attitude. Plenty of research suggests that play is essential to the creative process. Play helps silence your inner critic, freeing your mind to be silly and spontaneous. (Check out this great overview of the link between play and creativity if you want to learn more!)

This isn’t a how-to post, because I figured you’d want to know “why bother” before you’d care about the “how-to.” If you want to know more about how to get started with sketchnoting, please check out Mike Rohde’s fantastic and inspirational book,  the Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking


Connect With Readers–Without Breaking the (Time) Bank

In my last post, I bombarded you with examples of writing in second person–that bizarre voice where the narrative is about YOU, the reader, as a character in the story. Hopefully, I answered your questions about what second-person voice looks like. I may have even answered the all-important question of WHY you might want to experiment with something as funky as writing in second-person voice voice. That is, that second-person writing pulls readers into your story world, deepens audience engagement, and gives fans a richer, more enjoyable story experience.

Time and Quantum Physics

If you’re like most fiction writers I know, though, you probably have another crucial question: How can you provide your readers with MORE content when you’ve already got two books in the works, kids to pick up, a dog that need to get to the vet, DINNER TO COOK, GROCERIES TO BUY, AND

Get the idea?

If your days go anything like mine do, you’re probably in an ongoing battle with too-much-to-do-itis, but you CAN level-up your readers’ experience without breaking the “time bank.” The key is defining your project before you begin, tailoring it to fit your specific situation. In other words, writing MORE isn’t enough. You need to pick the RIGHT writing project–let’s call it your “value-adding” project, since it increases the value of your primary work–to fit your specific needs and resources.

Read on to learn how!

1. Define Your Specific Audience

The absolute first thing you need to decide is WHO you want to reach with your value-adding writing project. It makes sense, right?

If you want to connect with readers, you first need to define WHO those readers ARE.

You might be writing for your ideal reader, the person you envision reading your books, or whatever your “primary work” is–you know, the one inspiring this value-adding project!

Example: The ideal reader for my middle grade fiction is about twelve years old, smart, a bit geeky, and likes to play strategy games. Does that describe you? No? No worries! That’s because the ideal reader for my blog is NOT the same as the ideal reader for my fiction…which brings up an important point. The ideal reader for your PRIMARY WORK may not be the ideal reader for your VALUE-ADDING project. In other words, you might want to connect with a NEW reader.

Think of it this way. You can create a value-adding project to appeal to the same audience as your primary work, or you can create something that will appeal to a different audience, such as:

  • Your CUSTOMERS–people who might buy your book for someone else

Do you write for children or young adults? Consider writing for parents, grandparents, and others who purchase books for children and young adults. Do you write for a niche audience? Consider writing something that will appeal to the friends and spouses of your ideal reader.

  • Your USERS–people who might use your book in some way other than simply reading or gifting it

Teachers and book club organizers might fit this category. Get creative!

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Engage Readers: Make Them Part of Your Story

The Magic of Writing in Second Person

You probably know what second person voice sounds like. At least, in theory. If you’re writing a story in first person, you might say something like “I sipped my morning latte.” Change that to third person voice, and instead you write, “He sipped his morning latte.” By extension, writing in second person changes the sentence to, “You sipped your morning latte.” It’s not a very common form of writing. Most of us only use it when writing informal nonfiction — like this blog post.

However, as any childhood fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series will tell you, there’s a certain magic in reading fiction written in second person voice. It’s an invitation to the reader: Let’s play pretend…


Photo: Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities

Stories that place the reader in the role of the main character can intensify reader engagement, drawing your audience deeper into the story and blurring the lines between fiction and reality. They give readers a feeling of control, let them feel like they’re participating in story events. In the case of a “choose your own adventure” type tale, the reader influences the story’s outcome.

But, you say, I don’t really want to write a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Don’t stop reading!

Opportunities abound for using this tool to engage and connect with your readers. That’s because modern entertainment has become more and more interactive. A decade ago, second person voice used outside of a choose-your-own-adventure book would have been considered an artistic statement at best and, at worst, simply confusing.

Today’s audiences recognize the invitation posed by a second-person narrative–the author’s invitation to enter the story and play. They’re ready to play along!

This post is the first in a 3-part series. In Part 1 (this post), we’ll take a look at the three most common ways writer use second-person voice. More importantly, we’ll look at how these three different approaches affect your readers’ ability to suspend disbelief and enter into your story world.

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