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The Craft of Writing - and Why Many Writers Won't Learn It


Why would writers not want to improve their craft?

One possible answer is that many writers don’t realise that there is such a thing as ‘craft’ or that it has anything to do with them.

‘Craft’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘an activity involving skill in making things by hand’ and comes from the Old English word cræft, meaning ’strength, skill’. I think the problem probably arises because writers have a misunderstanding about the ‘thing’ which they are making. They think that they have finished (when they do manage to finish anything), when they have barely started.

The best way to describe this is probably through an analogy. Most of us will be familiar with jigsaw puzzles. The steps that most of us would take in assembling such a puzzle would be along the following lines:

1. One tips the pieces of the puzzle out on a flat surface.

2. Then one sorts through the pile, turning pieces over, spreading them out, perhaps dividing the straight edges from the rest.

3. Then, usually by referring to a picture that the completed puzzle is supposed to represent, one begins to put the thing together. Some do the edges first and build inwards; others take a key element and build outwards, until the whole picture appears. Note that, in the process of assembly, one is driven by the gaps, the holes, the missing pieces - as one discovers them and fits them together, new empty spaces beckon. And so the thing is finished.

At the end, one sits back and admires the whole thing.

This parallels the writing process quite closely. But most writers think that, in getting their words out onto the page, they have ‘written a book’, when the truth is astonishingly different:

They have only completed step 1 above.

The words on the page equate to the tipping of the pieces out of the box. They have not written a 100,000 word book - they have written 100,000 words. Don't get me wrong - this is a major achievement. But, after having written their first draft, the second step should follow: sorting through the ‘pile’, turning pieces over, spreading them out, perhaps dividing some bits from the rest.

Then, usually by referring to a picture of the completed story, a writer using the craft of writing begins to put the thing together for real. Some follow detailed outlines and build inwards; others take a key element, scene or character and build outwards, until the whole story appears.

Just as in assembling the jigsaw puzzle, in the process of assembly, a writer is driven by the gaps, the holes, the missing pieces - as he or she discovers them and fits them together, new empty spaces beckon. And so the book reaches the next stage.

Because we are not done with our analogy at this point, when it comes to writing. Having written a first draft and then assembled the story, a craft-orientated writer then purposefully and carefully disassembles the story and leaves a trail for the reader in the sequence that will lead the reader on, piece by piece, to the completed ‘picture’ or story.

That results in a fully crafted story.

Many writers, quite apart from thinking that they are finished when they dump the pieces out onto the board, don’t even have an overall picture to refer to when putting the story together. Over the last forty years, I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of stories which were structured along the lines of ‘Then this happened, then this happened, then this happened…’ without any clear direction and without any kind of overall picture materialising at all. Most such stories do not get completed simply because they lack the shape and power to compel the writer to complete them; certainly readers struggle through them, and leave dissatisfied.

Finishing a first draft is not finishing a story. Even having that first draft proofread, and perhaps tweaking it here and there to ‘fix a few details’ is not finishing a story. There is such a thing as ‘craft’. It is highly evident in every story that succeeds, whether as a novel, a short story, a screenplay, a theatre play, even as a poem, that more has happened than that words have been written. It is not enough to ‘trust to the imagination’: it is not the imagination’s function to provide carefully crafted, appealing, dynamic and effective stories: that is the job of the craftsperson, using the imagery and ideas provided by the imagination.

The craft of writing can be learned, just as the craft of furniture making or house building or making a musical instrument can be learned. If no one learned the craft of furniture making, we would have lumps of ill-fitting wood to sit on; if no one learned the craft of house building we would be living in cold and draughty caves; if no one learned the craft of making musical instruments we would just have noise. Unfortunately, in the absence of the application of the craft of writing, we get ill-fitting stories, uncomfortable to read and full of clamour without beauty.

Be a successful writer. Learn the craft of writing.

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