Is craft killing your creativity?

You know why you're here. You have a story to tell. A good story. The pictures in your head are vivid, the characters rich, your life-experiences unique and particular to you. No one can see the world through your eyes. Nobody can ever tell your story but you.

You know this, and yet... when you get it all down on paper it's flat, the character are shallow and nobody wants to read beyond the first page. It doesn't affect your audience in the way you know it should. And worse than that, it's clich├ęd. You are bemused and anguished but slowly you begin to understand why.

Words are not enough

Mere words are never as powerful as your memories. Stark sentences will never be as locked into your reader's sense-of-self as your imagination is to your psyche. So what do you do?

Discovering craft

You do the only thing that you can do – you discover there is a craft to writing, there are techniques for evoking feelings and responses in your audience. You discover the esoteria of foreshadowing, foretelling,subtext, and defamiliarization. You learn about structure, pace and narrative, the importance of character, the distinction between story and plot. And because you want to write and write well - and because you want it badly - you start to devour all you can about these things to get what you want. You read books, subscribe to lists, consume blogs, buy magazines. You do it for months, maybe even years. You apply what you've learned at your critique group, you re-write your work in the context of all the new techniques you now understand.

Improved writing?

And your writing becomes tight and well-paced, the characters have depth, you have dramatic-irony and realistic dialogue. You sound like a writer. You feel like a writer. You have all that. You have all that but your writing is still shit. Why?

Craft is the means not the end

Because craft is just craft. It's easy to attach too much importance to it because it is known and can be learned. That's why there is so much material produced about it. That is why you can find so much information on the craft of writing on the internet. It's deceptively reassuring. It's very seductive – the idea that if you learn all these things and adopt them, you will become a good writer.

But it's nonsense. Story-telling craft is just the language of story-telling – it's not the actual story itself. It's not the ideas, the characters, the content, the romance, milieu or the plot. Those are the things that make your story great, that make it different to everybody else's. Those are the things that make it your story.

Free yourself

You must learn the craft by all means – in the same way you must learn to walk, to read, to write. But it's only the first step. Don't fall into the trap that craft is all there is to writing. Learn it, master it, then be free of it – because if all you do is focus on it, the best you can ever hope for is to be the same as everybody else.

And that's not why you're here.


  1. A fine post, James. I'm surprised that so many blogs focus on craft and few, if any, to the aesthetics of writing.

    As you wrote elsewhere, there's a glut of writing advice on the web, but no-one seems to care about conveying beauty. And beauty, to me, is a huge part of the reading experience. Pedestrian writing will put me off any story; there's no good story without good writing, and good writing is beautiful.

    It's fine to warn people against excesses of language - but of late I see writers campaigning against parts of speech, like adverbs. Which I find ridiculous. All parts of speech are necessary.

    I've come across a good deal of writing advice that seems geared toward people who couldn't find their foot at the end of their leg. These are probably the same people that mistake craft for the be-all and end-all of writing.

    1. I fell prey to it all, if I'm honest, John - but like you I've realised that it's just a means to the end i.e. expressing the truth of the stories we want to tell. I still think its necessary to become master of the craft, so you can use it (or abuse it) at will. It's only by becoming fluent in it, you can be free of it. Thanks for your comment, and your continued inspiration to all writers.

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