IS WRITING SCIENCE OR ART?

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance. ~ Alexander Pope

In my other life, I’m a teacher. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard and answered this question: Is teaching a science or an art?  If you’re a teacher, you’re nodding your head right now. Been there. Done that.

My answer has always been both.

You see, the very best teachers are those that are creative and have a natural gifting and talent for teaching. But— and this is a big but, no pun intended— they have also studied 419XJ6C1JWL__SL500_SS500_the science of teaching. They’ve learned the best practices and methodologies and know how to implement them in the classroom. They also know when to disregard those so-called best practices and do what comes naturally to them.

I bet you can mentally tick off a list of teachers who perform their duties with skill and excellence, but there is no pizazz, no oomph, no I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-Mr. Ducky-will-do-today kind of eagerness from their pupils.

Then there are teachers who can make even the most tedious assignments and boring subjects exciting—images of Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus spring to mind—but those teachers have no classroom management or organizational skills.  They are perpetually behind on grading—if they grade anything at all. Gasp, say it isn’t so!

It’s the teachers that can do both that truly impact students’ lives and are remembered long after they leave the teaching arena.

I believe the same is true of writing; it’s science and  art.

Give me a second to duck for cover.  Okay, I’m safely ensconced behind my computer.

I can see your faces as I peek over the top of the monitor; the frowns of disapproval; the rolling eyes; the head shaking. The, What does she mean, writing is a science and an art? looks of astonishment. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Writing is pure creativity, the flow of imagination recorded on a page. There’s nothing scientific about it. Writing is a compulsion, an obsession even, and writers are the instrument for the words. The writer imparts the magic and artistry into prose.

Writing is an art.  Period.  End of discussion.

Nonetheless, I would argue writing is also a science. Isn’t that why we study writing so much? Telling versus showing. Plot and structure. Dynamic and believable characters. Tone and pacing. Do a quick search on Amazon and literally hundreds of books on how to write pop up. There’s a veritable smorgasbord of literature pertaining to writing. It’s not enough for a person  to want to write, or even to have some degree of talent, if they don’t know how to write and the how is the intricate meshing of science and art.

Do I dare come out from behind my computer yet?  No, not yet?

This guy has a PhD and he says writers are scientists so it must be true, right?

           Writers are the true scientists of our age, of every age.                                                                                                                  ~Robert Maurer, PhD

Okay, safely hidden behind my computer, I’ll continue our … ah … discussion.

I don’t care how much you’ve studied writing, how proficient you are at mechanics, grammar, syntax, punctuation, organization,  deep POV, telling versus showing—that’s the science bit—you’re writing will never have that extra something without the artistry element. It’s the difference between an okay read (maybe even every author’s nightmare … a boring read) and an I-can’t-put-this-book-down-it’s-so-amazing read.

hand-writing-science-formulas-setsiri-silapasuwanchai

Writing, like teaching, is both a science and art.

You have to have an innate gift for writing, and you hone it via techniques and guidelines. Talent and flair alone are not enough to create a fabulous piece of literature and conversely, mastery of and proficiency in writing techniques may get you an A on an essay, but it will never raise you to the ranks of a best-selling author.

In all likelihood, it won’t even get you published.

Trust me. As a teacher, contest judge, and editor, I’ve seen immaculate, pristine writing that was dry as white toast and just about as exciting. I’ve also seen fabulous story ideas that were so poorly written, they were nearly impossible to decipher. The first group has a firm grasp on the techniques and mechanics but lacks the level of talent needed to be a truly successful writer. The other group has some genuine artistic ability, in fact, in some cases, a great deal of talent. But their work is so unorganized and sloppy, so lacking in conventions and mechanics, it isn’t publishable. Unfortunately, it might never be.

Before I go, I’ll stop cowering behind my computer and will qualify my argument with this.

You can always learn the science part. I don’t believe the same can be said for talent and creativity—the artistry half. The truth is, though I’ve taken drawing classes, I am not artistic, and it wouldn’t matter how many techniques I learned, or how much I practiced, I will never be a great painter…or even a mediocre one.

Hey, I’m so unartistic, my first grade teacher made fun of my stick people. Really.

Of all those arts in which the wise excel,  Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.  ~Andre Breton

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About Collette Cameron

Bestselling, award-winning Historical Romance Author Collette Cameron pens Scottish and Regency Romances featuring rogues, rapscallions, rakes, and the intrepid damsels who reform them. Mother to three and self-proclaimed Cadbury chocoholic, she’s crazy about dachshunds, cobalt blue, and makes her home in Oregon with her husband and five mini-dachshunds. You'll always find animals, quirky—sometimes naughty—humor, and a dash of inspiration in her novels.
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9 Responses to IS WRITING SCIENCE OR ART?

  1. Nice article. I agree. I think writing is an art you have down to a science. As a teacher you have the future of our world sitting before you. You are in the one profession that opens the doors (and minds) of your students to all other professions. I applaud you.

  2. Kathy Bryson says:

    This is an interesting debate! As a beginning writing teacher, I lean pretty heavily towards the science approach. Having ‘rules’ sometimes makes it easier for the student who’s unsure or frustrated to function. Then I find a lot of them start expressing themselves and become more creative. Science may not teach creativity, but I’d argue that it can fan the flames! Unfortunately, I have yet to find a solution to the dry-as-toast academic treatise.

    • Kathy,
      Yeah, those treatise…bleck.
      I’ve worked with students from pre-k to post high school. It saddens me how many truly loath writing. A friend of mine just spent an entire afternoon trying to get her first-grader to finish
      a writing assignment he didn’t do in class. There was much pencil throwing and protesting. I know that when I encourage my students to free-write, to ignore the rules and just write, they are much more excited about writing.

  3. Thanks Gerri.
    Even as young students it’s easy for me to spot which ones of my students are the “writers” and which are just good at remembering conventions.

  4. This article is on target in many ways. Even scientists, like physicists and chemists and biologists, believe their work is both science and art. Personally, I believe science and art have more similarities than differences. Both search for truth. Both try to explain the world. Both are about discovery. The difference is in the approach. Science proscribes a method that is documented and repeatable. Art also has a method, but it is personalized and not usually documented. For many artists the approach seems to be somewhat “magical” which leads them to believe there is not a method. However, if one were to take the time to document process over several books I am confident that a method–a process–would be found for each artist.

    This brings me to a disagreement with your hypothesis that if you don’t have “talent” you can’t be a good writer. I believe the “science” part of writing, or what most of us call “craft” can be taught to a sufficient degree that someone without natural talent can become a good writer and make a good living off their writing. To do that what they need is persistence in continuing to hone their craft. In fact, I think that the majority of what we read and enjoy today in both non-fiction and fiction is written by people who are very good at craft but not necessarily naturally talented. Certainly, those who are born with a talent for language and story, and who hone that talent with craft (science) and persistence can also be amazing writers. But in the end, I personally believe that “talent” is overrated AND it can be developed. It is the hard work of honing the craft, persistence in the face of rejection, and consistently writing the next article/book/short story with the desire to get better and to learn that develops a writer.

    • Good stuff, Maggie, and I can’t disagree. I’m a better writer today than I was when I first started writing. In fact, I think each of my books is better (craft-wise) than the previous.

      Your comments make me think of something I heard when I first started writing. “Persistence will trump talent any day.” I can’t remember who said it, but I stuck in my mind.

  5. I think a lot of things we do are a combination of science (the how to) and art (the how we do it). As you pointed out, Collette, successful painting is a mixture of practical technique and that mysterious personal technique. I’d go so far as to argue that everything we do with passion is a mixture of science and art. It’s being fortunate enough to excel in both arenas on one subject where stars are born.

    • Sandra,
      Your comment made me think of the different people I know that are talented artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, and so on. Each of them has had to work at their craft, to practice until they excelled, yet each had a give to begin with. I think it was as they perfected the “science” part of their art from that their talent began to really burst forth.

  6. Pingback: Why I don’t write | Evelyn Rose Rawheart

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