The Art and Craft of Writing


As I see it, creative writing comprises two major components: art and craft.

Craft, I believe, can be taught. It is the equivalent to mastering the materials and tools of a trade which, in the case of writing, comprise primarily words on a page. But dig deeper and you find that, in addition to vocabulary and semantics, the tools of the writer include grammar and punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, the rhythm and sonority of coexisting words, and perhaps the most elusive and nebulous of all, the connotations released by those words in specific contexts. All of those instruments can be taught. But they cannot all be learned to the same degree of proficiency. Any able-bodied person can be taught the rudimentary techniques of playing the violin, but not everyone will learn to play it with the skill and passion of a Paganini.

And sometimes, for some students, the application of craft can get in the way of their creativity. Teaching the craft of writing is often more about don’ts than dos; and the novice writer can find himself caught in the trap of avoiding pitfalls rather than allowing his inner voice free rein to express itself with fire and passion. There are clichés to be avoided and speech tags to be eschewed. Never write in the passive voice and be careful of over-using the same words or expressions. Be precise! Never use an exclamation mark outside inverted commas. Don’t use those vague words like they and it. (Where was Dickens’ craft teacher when he started writing A Tale of Two Cities, I wonder.) Abandon all ye who enter here all adverbs and adjectives. And for goodness sake: SHOW, DON’T TELL. I once had the temerity to enter the first page of Joyce’s Ulysses into one of those style checking programs, and it failed dramatically.

The art of writing, on the other hand, is something that I believe can be learned but not taught. It is learned by living a life and observing and reflecting on the actions of the life lived and their consequences. And one’s learning can be further supplemented by reading and absorbing the manner in which other writers have conveyed their experience using only those abstract symbols a writer has at his disposal. I believe a writer who makes you feel something when you read his or her work is a writer from whom you can learn a great deal.

From an early age, certainly pre-teen, I was drawn to writing. But over the years, I have slowly come to accept the probability that I will never achieve the greatness to which that early version of me aspired. At first, I resisted the notion of failure and strove to overcome it. Being a writer was synonymous to me then with being an author. But gradually I learned to temper my ambition. Now I write because I enjoy writing. I have no ulterior motive. I endeavour to improve, to make each new piece I write better than its predecessors, treating each one as an essential step on a long ladder to self-fulfilment. Am I deluding myself, telling myself that being an author doesn’t matter? Perhaps. But if it is merely a subterfuge, it is one that hurts no one, not even me.

Sometimes, I read articles by or about authors whose work I admire – I like to know their experience in the process of writing – and to my frequent surprise and great satisfaction, I find that often they describe experiences which I, myself, have known and enjoyed, more modestly perhaps but enjoyed nevertheless. So when I compare myself to them, I can see only two points of difference, neither of which deters me from the path I am on. Firstly, their writing is more accomplished than mine. And secondly, they are paid for what they write. But when I write, I do not feel obliged to follow any literary conventions, or bow to the demands of publishers who seek to steer the tone or content of my manuscript towards a more lucrative outcome; and I don’t feel a need to pander to a public demanding that I fulfil their expectations. I have no public. I am a writer, not an author. But I am happy. And I am free.