Writing: Art or Craft?

I remember a conversation from many years ago in my first writing group about whether or not writing could be taught. Some people thought no, that writing alone in all the fields of human endeavour, was somehow special and the ability was innate, Gods-given. The best you could do was encourage, but teaching, darling, was simply not possible.

As a journeyman writer still wet behind the ears I soaked this up. Was it true? I had my doubts. Later I realised this was nonsense. Everything other human activity can be, and is taught, from acting to zoology. Writing is not that special, nor that precious. The conversation moved on to whether writing was art or craft.

Over time this question has interested me probably far more than it reasonably should.

In paraphrase, the great French poet Paul Valéry wrote that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. You can read the full quote in French and translation here, including his reasoning for why he thinks that is.  

From my own experiences, and listening to other writers, that’s pretty much true for novels. There’s either not enough time because of a deadline, or you’ve drafted it so many times you’re tired of it. So there we have it – writing is art.

Except there’s a craft to writing too, the developed skills in use of language, tension, characterisation, agency, and all the other tools in a writer’s toolbox. Skills that one hopes will never stop being refined and improved in breadth and depth. And of course we change too.

The other thing I can’t seem to leave alone is leather craft. Is this a craft? The name implies as much but I’ve seen work that has amazed me with its artistry. With its origins in the working classes isn’t this classification as much a social construct as anything?

I have a theory: The difference between Art and Craft is that craft can be finished.

When I write a novel, given time and inclination I could redraft it forever, but if I make a leather belt when it is made it is done, finished, and there is nothing more that could be done to make it more the thing that it already is. In fact doing more would risk ruining it.

Except the learning of the craft never ends. Skills improve, the links between mind and eye and hand strengthen, new tools and techniques are discovered or learned. There’s an art to all this after all.

I still like my theory, but I think what it really shows is art and craft are two hands working together, inspiration and application. If I cook a meal, that is a piece of craft, once it’s done it is done, but the learning (and believe me in this realm I have much to learn) never ends.

So is writing an art or a craft? It’s both, obviously, just like everything we do. And yes, it can be taught. And learned.  But what about reading, a lone and possibly snarky voice calls? Reading? Don’t get me started.


(A slightly different version of this was originally posted in the Milford SF Writers blog in February, 2020.)

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