Before shifting to philosophy, I was a journalism major. My passion was and remains writing and reading, although my topics have shifted over the years. I read grammar books for fun now and then, and get excited over a well-placed comma or a finite distinction, the difference between farther and further or prophesy and prophecy, for example. I think in words and try to pin down everything I can into coherent syntax. I recognize this has limits, but it’s how I process the world. Besides, language has immense expressiveness.
I have no other credentials than an ongoing college education; a passion for the page; a computer weighted down with essays, poems, short stories, and half-finished novels; and an exhaustive reading list. But I hope my opinion has some depth to it, and can entertain–or interest–a reader.
I think writing is a craft and a type of magic, a dichotomy made by Carl Sessions Stepp in his book Writing as Craft and Magic. Today, I’d like to talk about the first part: craft.
Craft is the nuts-and-bolts business of setting words on a page according to the laws of standard English. Some rules are basic: tenses, syntax, diction, prepositions, etc. Some require more interpretation and creativity, like trying find the appropriate form for a piece. Should it move from one sentence to another, or unfold like a lyrical piece of poetry? Should it have section titles? Long paragraphs? Punchy sentences? Modern creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, stretches the limits of craft to attain new goals.
But, like any art, this free expression comes from numerous rules. Craft is a paradox: by understanding and mastering your limits, you use them, bend them, or surpass them with clarity and originality. As my journalism teachers said, “You gotta’ know the rules before you break ’em.” I’m currently reading Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun. I just finished a section about linking words together. Details about the minute particles of our speech–of, with, for, etc.–leave me humbled and unsure. I stumble over words as if they’re speed bumps and have to scan my sentences for parts of speech. The language is a complex beast requiring exhaustive attention. Craft hopes to make such attention precise. But it doesn’t make it easy.
That’s enough for now. Next time, magic.