Posted by: Phil Anderson | July 15, 2013

The Arts and Crafts of Writing

I celebrated my birthday this past week, and among other gifts, I received two books for writers. The first is Pushcart’s Complete Book of Rotten Reviews & Rejections, a collection of negative comments about writers and their writing. It sounds depressing, but it’s actually very encouraging to know that even the most famous and accomplished writers have had disparaging things said about their work. For example, after seeing William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, “The most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.” And one of Rudyard Kipling’s manuscripts was rejected by a publisher who wrote, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

The other book I received is The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. Its premise is that within five pages a good editor or agent can pick out a bad manuscript, and the book contains examples and practical advice on how to avoid writing a bad book. In the introduction Mr. Lukeman explains that while there is no formula for creating a good book (if there were, anyone could write one), it’s quite easy to enumerate what makes up a bad manuscript. In explaining his assertion, Lukeman describes two distinct aspects of writing: the art and the craft. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this dichotomy since I started reading both of these books.

The art of writing is the creative aspect. It’s the imaginative, enigmatic inspiration that sets certain works apart. This part of writing cannot be taught, and no one can say where it comes from. It might be an idea, or a style, or a point-of-view that seems to come out of nowhere, but which differentiates itself from the mediocre. Art is open to interpretation and allows for Shakespeare and Kipling to receive rotten reviews and rejections.

On the other hand, the craft of writing is the technical side. It includes grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Words are put together into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in a way that relates meaning.

Neither of these elements is more important than the other, and both are necessary to produce a memorable piece of writing. The most unique or remarkable ideas are meaningless if they cannot be communicated, and a well-written but uninspired essay will not likely attract much attention. So I continue to work on both sides of the writing coin: exploring and experimenting with new ideas and perspectives while trying to impart them clearly and correctly.

Perhaps some day my work will be at a level that will earn me a rejection letter like the one received by Louis Zukofsky from a Chinese publisher for his poem “A”:

“Most honorable Sir, we perused your manuscript with boundless delight. And we hurry to swear by our ancestors we have never read any other that equals its mastery. Were we to publish your work, we could never presume again on our public and name to print books of a standard not up to yours…. We must therefore refuse your work….”


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