A look at the written word in relation to the world.
Is writing a science, or is it an art?
There are plenty of voices out there – loud ones – that passionately claim it’s either one or the other.
Sometimes writing is exacting and precise, with clearly defined codes. It breaks through ignorance or confusion to set the reader straight and is guided by certain measures of stylistic consistency. Think of research papers or scientific writing, where a misplaced set of parentheses or incorrect citation formatting can sink the reputation of the whole piece. This writing is a vehicle to impart knowledge, or communicate the results of an experiment.
But writing isn’t just about giving information. When it comes to creative writing, there is a special kind of reverence held for not only the product, but the process. Some may consider ideas turning into letters on a page or screen a kind of magic, a phenomenon which hardly warrants further analysis or evaluation. This writing trends more toward style and expression than outright clarity. As readers, creative or artistic writing often stirs us emotionally by triggering our own memories, images, and personal symbols of meaning.
The act of writing and the purpose that drives us to it is unique compared to many other arts and sciences because it pervades all the others. We read to learn and we read to be entertained. We can read peer reviewed academic papers, then turn around and absorb a friend’s post on Twitter.
So is writing science? Sometimes.
Is it art? Other times, yes.
Can it be both? Absolutely.
Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in between the lines.
First, let’s admit – science gets a bad rap.
Many people think of science as a list of rules or rigid laws that give shape to the world we inhabit. But science is not an unyielding, immovable object, proven by how our understanding of scientific principles have evolved over time. Sitting on this side of the 21st Century, it seems ridiculous that Galileo died while under house arrest for claiming (correctly, it turns out) that the earth revolves around the sun . Yet, at that time, such a stance was heresy.
The study of science is ultimately about obtaining objective knowledge. It’s about asking questions, making observations, and separating what we don’t know from what we do. Science helps us make rules – rules that should be regarded with some degree of skepticism – to understand how things work.
In regards to writing, science has helped us form and test ideas about what makes writing effective. Inquiry and experimentation have enabled us to create rules of writing structure that – when fed into artificial intelligence – articles like this one can be produced.
Rules help make good – and intelligible – writing.
I have written a sentence, and it’s (hopefully) making sense to you.
If I were to write this:
…it would mean nothing. Maybe you derive personal value from absurdity, and so it provides some value to you. But that doesn’t translate to coherence.
We’ve got to have some level of pattern and predictability in language, whether written or spoken. The structure, form, and context of written language can – and should – have some level of consistency.
But what about art?
What about creativity, and expression? What about daring to break rules and go beyond the expected or explainable?
Some writing creates new worlds, rather than explaining the one we’re in. Writing can connect, transport, define, and deliver in ways that are difficult to describe. And in ways – it turns out – that are difficult for a robot to copy. While A.I. may do a fine job on short news articles, reading a Botnik-created Harry Potter novel doesn’t match the experience of the human-penned books (though some may say it’s even better entertainment).
All this isn’t to say that art doesn’t require scientific inquiry, or intellectual rigor. Any well-trained artist can tell you the importance of honing skills over time. As one of my acting teachers used to say, we learn technique so we have something to fall back on when the magic doesn’t happen by itself.
Whether perceived or objectively real, we as humans feel the difference between something meant to inform versus inspire. We know there’s some difference between being swept up in the nostalgia of a love story and in reading a clear textbook passage, even if we can’t quite name what that is.
It’s neither and it’s both.
For me, the distinction between science and art resembles that between the head and the heart. Science satisfies the brain, while art satisfies the soul. Art reaches out a hand, asking for a muse, but science goes out to find it.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring the science and art of writing. I’ll look at how we interpret writing and what makes it work. I’ll break down some frequently used tools on writing structure and content, explore where they come from, and question if they really even matter. I’ll also spend some time on our emotional attachment to writing, as both writers and readers, attempt to answer the question “why do we seek stories?”
Check back in – or comment below – to contribute to the conversation.