Craft and Art, or, Are There Rules and Why?

Andy Meisenheimer, editor at Zondervan, posted a great email to the ACFW loop about following or not following "rules" in writing. I asked for permission and he let me repost it here for you guys. He has a lot of good things to say.

Craft and Art, or, Are There Rules and Why?

Writing is, as all creative media, a mixture of art and craft. Craft is what art is when it becomes codified--that is, when it can be deconstructed and taught. Art is where innovation happens. Craft is where convention resides. There are few artists who aren't first skilled craftsmen. The great artists are those who know how to take craft and transcend convention to create something new.

So the task of the budding artist is first and foremost to learn the craft. If you want to build a chair, just winging it, based on feelings and "voice", it will rarely result in a chair that will support a person, last through everyday use and stand up to abuse. Craft is the result of all the artists that have come before, trying to communicate with an audience, and learning from their stumbling and their successes.

So, is it really black and white all the time? Of course not. But there are things that have proven to resound with readers and those that have proven to put readers off. That's what we call craft. Poor craft, then, is writing that hasn't learned from the past. Learning the craft doesn't change someone's particular voice, it is part of the development of that voice. Voice is not an unrefined raw instinct--it is the result of deep study and intense deconstruction. And good craft isn't dumbing things down--it's making things accessible at a basic level where effective communication can happen.

For an example--omniscient point of view, which was once a part of the craft, has since become a technique, and a rare one at that. Is it wrong? No. Is it increasingly difficult to use and still capture the imagination of the majority of today's reader? Yes. And like most techniques, it's really easy to do very poorly. Just because you're doing omniscient POV doesn't mean you're doing it right. It has its own expectations, conventions, and guidelines, and just like the chair, winging it based on feelings and "voice" rarely produces a viable product.

On the other hand, there's a lot of folk wisdom and old wives' tales out there masquerading as "rules". Most of them have basis in a good idea, but then they get twisted as people look to make them easier to implement, or make them apply to their own personal tastes. When the difficulty of a convincing omniscient POV meets the glut of poorly-done or accidental omniscient POV, it's easy to just say "Omniscient POV is wrong." And then, in the age of the internet, woo hoo! Suddenly the whole world of aspiring writers knows it.

A good editor knows the difference between the rule and the craft. So when an editor makes comments about a certain technique, and says "don't do that", they aren't saying "you can't", but "it's not working for you." And it's because the editor, if they are a good editor, has noticed a disconnect between what the author intends and what the majority of readers will feel, subconsciously or consciously, and wants to save you from creating an undesired reaction in the reader.

And the best editors can tell the difference between good art and bad craft. I heard recently the comment "all books are starting to sound the same"--and there's no one good answer to that. I highly doubt, though, that it's because all of this brilliantly written art is getting edited *down* in the name of craft. It's a nice thought, if you're an aspiring writer. And I'm not blaming you--professional editors have their own personal demons to battle, but that's another story.

We need to think about writing more like an art form. When you see people in art museums copying the great works--when you hear your neighbor practicing the piano--when you see a ballet dancer stretching--when you see a film student furiously taking notes in a movie theater--those people all have dreams of changing the world someday, but in order to do so, they are learning the craft. Remember, that should be you.



  1. Thanks, Camy and Andy. I thought this was brilliant the first time I read it, and so do I the second!


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