Writing: The Art and Craft

Believe it or not, I do think about something other than writing, but lately there seems to be a lot to stimulate me in that area.  Take this week…  I e-mailed my friend Michael Wester that I was hoping to get together with a mutual friend and talk about the art and craft of writing.

Exterior Landscape

Exterior Landscape

Michael responded, “Writing the art and craft…???  I am not sure I follow?”

In replying to Michael, I realized that in my mind there is a complex, intertwined relationship between what I think of as the art of writing and the craft of writing.

The art of writing involves rich characterization, thoughtful world building, and intricate but comprehensible plots.  “Art” also involves the elusive but all important element of style – that strange but often undefinable element that means you’ll never mistake a Terry Pratchett novel for a Patricia McKillip novel, even if these authors were to write on the same subject, about the same characters, and in the same setting.

The craft of writing is what it takes to actually write and write well.  This starts with actually sitting down to write, rather than talking about that great novel you could write if you only had time.  It carries through to keeping writing, day after day, until the pages pile up.  It continues as you revise what you’ve written, trying to make the words bring the vision you started with into a shape that you can share it with someone else.

Obviously, the two are intertwined.  You can’t improve in the art of writing if you don’t actually sit down and write.  Writing workshops or books on writing can teach you tricks and terminology but, just as you can’t learn to ride a horse without throwing your leg over the back of that big, hairy four-legged beastie, you can’t learn to write unless you put words down on a page (or screen).  And not just a few words, but lots and lots.  There’s an old saying that it takes three falls to make a rider.  I’ll adapt that and say that it takes three hundred thousand words to make a writer.

However, you can’t produce writing that is worth reading if you don’t attend to the art.  Otherwise, you’re always going to collect rejection letters or, if you choose to self-publish, never get that vital “buzz” that leads to people insisting that their friends absolutely must read your book.

Sometimes, art and craft become very out of balance.  I’ve known art-obsessed writers who worry so much about making sure that every detail and word is perfect that they don’t write very much.   Of course, what they write is often beautiful.   Ultimately, their slim, slowly evolving manuscripts can become  like one of those haute cuisine meals that’s beautiful to look at, delightful to taste, and not very filling.  They leave you wanting more, and that “more” isn’t there.

On the other hand, I’ve known writers – including many popular professionals – who become so caught up in producing to a deadline that art falls by the wayside.  The same wonderful word-slinging skills that brought them to where they are professionally are neglected,  becoming less important than producing “copy.”  Art vanishes.  Taking its place is a strange race to  finish a work and get it “out.” In the end, production goals become more important than the dreams and visions that led the person to take up writing.

So…  There I go again, thinking about writing.   Outside the sky is grey and the wind tosses clouds that the weather service swears shouldn’t be there.  My landscape is in shades of brown, uninterrupted by the least hint of green.  Even the birds darting back and forth from the feeder are mostly brown.

But my interior landscape is vibrant and colorful, enriched by the intertwining boughs of the flowering trees called Art and Craft.

9 Responses to “Writing: The Art and Craft”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I’ve always called myself an artist. A literary one perhaps, but I see no difference. But I think you nailed the distinction on the head, not just for us either. The “art” of creative works is the thing that touches us. Wither is fiction, or non-fiction, music, art, whatever. Art is the thing that affects us.

    “Craft”, is what it takes to make it work right. Without it, ok, pretty, but somehow lacking. It’s a balance to be sure. I’m sure most artists struggle with one side more than the other. For example; My ideas are good. I like the things they do, the places they go. My problem is the craft part. Getting them to do those things and go to those places. Filling in the blanks between meaningless (or as meaningless as anything gets) parts of the page-page-events.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Since my attitude towards art in general is more like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), my personal favorite quote on the subject is: “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately, everybody drinks water.” That, of course, is from Mark Twain.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    So, would it fair to say that “art” is the message that is communicated (or the attempt to communicate) and that “craft” is the purposeful manipulation of symbols by the artist? In other words, is art about getting a particular response or reaction from the audience?

    How does your distinction between craft and art carry over to non-fiction? Does art matter as much as the author’s understanding of the subject and the ability to communicate it clearly? I recently picked up The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (which is widely claimed to be one of the most cited books in the world), and found it to be practically unreadable. The tone came across as smug and condescending, and content-wise, had some major gaps (especially the impact of applying novel technologies to scientific research). So…how much of my frustration with the work is my fault as a reader (for just not getting it, maybe), and how much is the author’s failure in craft? How do you evaluate that?

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I would venture to say that Art is rather more than just the message – it’s the ensemble that makes the work unique and distinctive. What makes the work yours, and not Jane’s or Nicholas’s.

      If I’m not off-base on that, it follows that art matters as much in nonfiction – it’s the difference between the work being yours and not-yours. Of course, you can be successful with not-yours in certain areas, since there are mechanisms that can be used to get it published anyway – the refereed academic journal comes to mind. Even there, though, and even in the hard sciences, a distinctive voice can make you _more_ successful than you might be otherwise.

      As for the question of whether it’s you or lack of craft on the part of the writer that’s at fault, apply the same test as for fiction: if your reaction is general, or even widespread, it’s probably not you. The area of nonfiction, however, is complicated by the question of correctness. To take Kuhn as an example, there is a broadly-held opinion – I hesitate to call it consensus because I haven’t read widely enough to be sure of it – that he’s just plain wrong. That a careful and complete examination of the evidence makes the whole notion of ‘Scientific Revolution’, at best, dubious. And, therefore, that much like the Renaissance of which it marks the closing phase, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century is distinguished from what preceded and followed it far more by the conscious self-aggrandisement of the participants than by any real and sudden shifts of either content or methodology. If you’re even peripherally aware of that, or if your own experience or knowledge makes you critical of his arguments for other reasons, then somewhere in the back of your brain is a stream of ‘Hold on! _What_ is he talking about?’ IOW, you’re being jerked out of the reader’s trance just as you would be in a poorly researched or executed novel. A good nonfiction writer can get and keep your attention despite disagreement, but, unless he persuades you, and maybe not even then, never as fully and completely as when you agree.

      • Chad Merkley Says:

        Some of what goes into making an author unique and distinctive are things like diction, sentence and paragraph structure, and so on–I’d tend to consider that part of the craft of writing. They can be taught, learned, and consciously altered. I don’t know that the creation of art can be taught (other than just through experience of being human).

        I do like your statements about consensus and correctness. Good art is shared and passed on–that’s consensus (I think that academic criticism often just makes enjoying art more complicated than it should be, though). But if you’re trying to describe the physical world, you have to describe it correctly in order to be shared. Voltaire and Goethe both published numerous scientific papers. I don’t think anyone outside the occasional historian or biographer bothers to read them anymore. Their literary works are still being reprinted.

        As for Kuhn, I think that he may be mostly guilty of attempting to generalize too much, so he ended up with kind of a straw man image of science is and what scientists do. He seems to be presenting an image of scientists being isolated in ivory towers, and working independently. In my admittedly limited experience as a professional researcher, the most important things scientists do are to observe, communicate, and speculate. Kuhn just misses the constant questioning and wondering. Additionally, I think he has some major stylistic problems that just make getting meaning out a particular sentence or paragraph hard.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    The issue I have with art is about cultural norms. There’s part of art that makes things that hold the attention (beauty, power, drama, etc.), and then there’s a good chunk of art that’s a social process of authorities deeming something to be Art.

    That later part is the thing that bugs me, due to its total artificiality. So much “Great” modern art (including writing) seems to be more about who the artist knows and how the artist sells his or her image as being an Artist. Rather less of modern arts’ quality seems to be about things like beauty, power, or drama, let alone craftsmanship.

    That’s why I like Mark Twain’s quote. He’s been canonized as one of America’s Great Writers, and is therefore an artist, but that quote makes him come across as a money-grubbing popular writer, a crass commercial craftsman, not a great artist. And he was both.

    I’m not denigrating the craft or the art of writing. I’m simply saying that the boundary is artificial. There are so many different types of writing that separating what’s art and what’s craft quickly becomes artificial to the point of silliness. After all, we’ve got books ranging from the computer algorithm produced kruft that a computer science professor produces (he has a program that scrapes the web, finds information on a topic, and formats it into a book. It costs him less than a dollar to produce the book who regard working on a , so his low sales more than pay for the operation), through series writers who regard working on a Star Trek book as a great coup (and it is, financially), up to the Great Ahtists like Joyce and Stein, who, while canonized, remain unread by us plebeian water-drinkers. Instead of asking where to draw a line, ask whether it’s even worth doing so. Was Tolkien a great artist? Not according to the authorities of his day. We have similar arguments now about Rowling. And so it goes.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I did try to stress that I feel that Art and Craft are intertwined — parts of the same creative process.

    And I wasn’t talking about Art as judged by “establishment” but as the elements that will always and have always separated those who can do something extraordinary from those who slap paint on a canvas or pixels on a screen.

    I once had a very thoughtful chat with a writer of mysteries who also taught creative writing. He said (I paraphrase), “I wonder if we’re doing people a disservice by making them believe that writing is something that can be taught. Sure, I can teach the basic skills, but that extra something — call it inspiration, vision, Art (rather than craft) — may not be teachable.

    All I know is that if you don’t try, you’re never going to find out.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Depends on what you consider to be extraordinary, doesn’t it?

      As for teaching writing, there’s a difference between being able to write well and having something to say. I think it’s worth teaching as many people as possible to write well, not just because people tend to be judged by their words, but more because it’s hard to express oneself clearly without some skill. Without motivation, skill is useless and will atrophy. A writer has to have something to say. Is motivation art then? No. The writer of formula works (anything from romances to reports to boiler-plate science) is often more motivated than an inspired artist, but that doesn’t elevate their work to art. It doesn’t mean that a formula writer can’t create art, either. Motivation is simply something that you can’t really teach.

      What elevates things to art? The best answer I can come up with is the judgement of other people. Certainly art involves motivation, but it’s not motivation. It’s not craft, but it involves craft. It involves inspiration, but it’s not inspiration. Art is something where you know it when you see it, and that’s a personal judgement.

  6. Sue Says:

    I never thought about this from the point of view of writing (I’m not a writer, in spite of the fact that I have a degree in journalism). But it brings back memories of many, many hours arguing with my fellow students when I was a Fine Arts major about the difference between Art and Craft. Can something that is functional (a Craft) be Art? Can a table be art? One can be taught to build beautiful table; furthermore, many copies can be made by someone who is not the original creator/designer. And the reverse: can something that is art be functional? The argument was never settled. 🙂

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