Writing – Art or Craft?

By Hugh Ashton

I have lived in Japan for the past 21 years, coming from the UK, where I had worked in the IT industry in support and technical writing. Originally, I came over to write manuals for musical instruments and audio equipment, working for a Japanese subcontractor specializing in documentation. For the past 12 years or so I have been working on a freelance basis, providing writing and editing services to companies and individuals (mostly in Japan) who need polished professional English.

This has taught me to regard quality writing as a craft, not an art. In the same way that a cabinetmaker will take pride in turning an exquisite chair leg on a lathe, but would never regard himself as an artist. I aim to produce well-turned sentences that do not come under the heading of artistry, but serve a definite purpose: to communicate meaning clearly and simply while retaining a certain elegance.

This applies to almost all aspects of my work whether I am writing a user manual for a piece of electronic equipment, a speech to be delivered at a conference, a magazine article, or presentation slides for a sales promotion.

This is not to say that emotions and feelings are absent from the writing I produce­ there is room for the human touch even in technical manuals­, but the primary aim of most of my writing is to communicate facts and ideas, not feelings and emotions.

One aspect of the writing craft, probably unique to those living in foreign countries, is the concept of “rewriting.” Japanese teaching of English is typically poor (there is usually no problem with Japanese people learning English, despite their protests), and there is a need for rewriting by “native speakers” (the phrase is used a lot here) of concepts expressed by Japanese writers in English.

Sometimes mistakenly referred to as “proofreading” by the Japanese client, such work can involve the complete destruction and reassembly of the text, referring to the original Japanese on which the English was based. Sometimes, on reading the English version of a speech or presentation, I find that the order of thoughts and ideas follows a Japanese pattern, which would be unacceptable to an English audience. In these cases, I recast the whole piece, explaining carefully to the client that I am not producing a translation, and sometimes have the satisfaction of knowing that the Japanese has been subsequently altered to match my English version. In this case, the cabinetmaker has successfully reshaped a square peg to fit a round hole­ craftsmanship rather than artistry once more.

I am proud to call myself a craftsman, or even a wordsmith, for this kind of work. Fiction, of course, is a different kettle of piranha, but that can wait for another article.

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7 Responses to “Writing – Art or Craft?”

  • Aminul Islam Sajib

    To be honest sometimes I feel too jealous of you. I’m a 16-years-old Bangladeshi boy who spends each and every moment out of 24 hours a day in learning something new and improving his English writing skill. Whenever I read a great post written by somebody, I feel so sad because I can’t write like that.

    There are English learning programs available in the city but they all, suck (except the British Council; but it’s costly that I can’t afford). I can fluently write technical writings but when it comes to expressing feeling or writing a good story, I feel terribly limited. All the time I know what to write, but I can’t write just because I don’t know how to write [in English]. Most often I throw away a possibly great post before that is completed; and it’s because I was having trouble writing that piece of work.

    Sometimes I fail to arrange the sentences or the words in a sentence in a proper way. Sometimes I put a wrong word.

    Not only when writing, but also when it comes to reading, the same thing disappoints me. I am [surely] too much curious to learn more and that’s why I read a lot. You will not believe that I have read around a hundred books on Google Books but I haven’t understood any of them. Those books were of story, documentary, and others of similar kinds.

    Daniel, I don’t know if you feel lucky for what ability you’ve gained — or probably learned. But one thing is for sure, you’ve got what I dream for. What I dream for each and every minutes of my life, that includes late night hours.

  • Aminul Islam Sajib

    And..
    to the author,

    the last paragraph of my last comment also applies to you. You have to admit that you are lucky. You will surely feel lucky only if you love writing. And I guess you do.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Aminul, I don’t consider myself particularly gifted. But that is not a problem, because I believe that hard work and persistence trumps talent any day.

    In other words, keep working hard towards what you want and you surely get there.

  • Ray Ward

    An apt analogy here is a painter who paints the Mona Lisa and a painter who paints my house. The former is an artist. The latter is a craftsman whose work, when done well, I admire. As far as my own writing goes, I strive to be a good house painter.

  • Brad K.

    @ Ray Ward, “I strive to be a good house painter”.

    I expect that would depend on what you are trying to communicate. When you are sharing dreams and stirring passions, then a reach beyond to inspiration and beauty is a must. When the need is for clear instruction, explaining a topic, or guiding a process, then workmanship and clear communication is the goal.

    When you need a house painted, you call a painter. When you need a passion, the emotions of an event, or to capture beauty and revelation you call an artist – or reach deeper inside and express your own life and humanity.

    Doing the job right always counts, whether that gray house down the block or the Sistine Chapel. Or even prepared text for the President’s teleprompter.

  • Jusan

    I could say that your article sparked a good thought for me. I am so impressed to the people like you for sparing your valuable time for sharing the ideas and thoughts which encourages more of the readers to make their time more worth it. Thanks!

  • littleflossie

    I applaud you for the time and effort you have put into this site. I am very new to the world of blogging and stumbled across your site on one of my fact-finding missions. I find it easy to write professional, work related documents but struggle with the personal, diary type style. Hence why I thought creating my own blog may improve my ability. I will be back here often. Thanks!

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