Is All Writing Art? 2

What people sometimes mistake about my interest in writing is that I usually don’t care about how “artistic” something is. I care about clarity and evocativeness. Something that can make me feel an emotion is good writing, no matter how plain or flowery the language might be.

Some stories let their “artfulness” get in the way of the actual story. It’s become less and less a trend as time has gone on, because now publishers are more interested in things that people will read. Sure, it’s a business decision, but I think it’s justified.

You might consider some of these things “art” on their own. After all, isn’t all writing “art?” Isn’t anything creative that can make us feel “art?”

I don’t care about art. I care about clear, concise, evocative language that doesn’t get in the way of the story but instead serves as the story’s vehicle. That’s the hallmark of good writing. In my opinion.

This kind of goes back to my point about how sometimes things that are hard to understand are considered of a higher standard than those things which most average people would get. Artful writing is often sing-songy and bloated and not exactly the kind of thing you read for enjoyment.

I was editing my manuscript recently and I ran across a line that I had forgotten about. It was a really short line that made me laugh:

“His heart fell into his ass.”

I personally think it would be hard to justify this as “art.” It’s a line that I think catches the reader by surprise. It’s figurative language, for sure, because if those two body parts can do such a thing, you’ve got more pressing issues.

But it’s crude and simple, not exactly the kind of thing one considers “art.”

Art and Writing are two different skills, to me. They both require repeated, focused practice. Each writer and each artist has his or her own unique quirks to differentiate themselves from other writers and artists.

Some writing can be art. But most good writing is not. In fact, there’s a lot of “math” in writing. Not necessarily in the traditional sense, but stories that sell tend to follow certain formulas.

Learning the formulas of good storytelling is actually pretty important for the success of a writer. It sounds like selling out, or like copying, but stay with me.

Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that just didn’t feel right? Like, there was something unsatisfying about it. If it was the dialogue or the acting or some stupid story element that just didn’t make sense, those are pretty easy to figure out. But sometimes there’s just that something that doesn’t work.

It’s probably the story structure.

There are only a certain number of story structures in existence. Literary novels and experimental works don’t tend to follow these, but they’re the exception. Otherwise, there are a lot of story structures we’re used to, with one of the most common being the hero’s journey.

When we sit down to enjoy a story, we have certain expectations, even if we don’t realize it. It’s because the way a story twists and turns is nothing new—it’s all in how the writer uses these moments. But if they’re completely missing, we start to feel a little let down, even if we don’t know why.

Think of any rom-com and break down the plot in your head. Now compare that to any other rom-com. They both probably have pretty similar elements. One love interest meets the other, they have a weird, rocky start, then things start to heat up. When things seem to be going great, something happens (which is usually a huge misunderstanding) to break the two up. By the end one of them has done something to win the other back, and we have to assume they live happily ever after. They could just break up two weeks later, who really knows?

My favorite breakdown of story structure has been in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. In it, Coyne goes through each scene of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (the novel, not the movie) and points out the major turning points. He also points out the major elements present in most if not all thrillers which are also present in the novel.

But you don’t have to read about story structure to get it. If you read a lot, you’ll pick it up innately. It’s why we know that stories where everything comes easily to the main character are no fun because they lack conflict. It’s why we know that a character who gets dragged along by the story is less interesting and sympathetic than a character who finds himself faced with a challenge and makes a decision to act (or not act, which is perfectly valid as well).

And none of this is “art.” This is experience, it’s skill, it’s learning. Really, if there’s any art in it at all, it’s in not making your story structure predictable, even though it’s something your readers will all likely be familiar with. It’s like hiding the zipper on a monster costume.

So, that’s my opinion. Writing is more of a skill than an art. I think the only kind of writing that can be considered art is poetry, and I’m not exactly a huge fan of poetry… Blame a college professor who ruined it for me.

Any other opinions out there? Go ahead and leave them in the comments. I don’t bite, I promise. I’m cool with people who think different from me even when I think you’re wrong.

Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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2 thoughts on “Is All Writing Art?

  • Jon

    This is an interesting post. It’s a question, which I’m sure you are well aware, has bothered philosophers and writers and artists for a long time. Aristotle has some really interesting things say about Art (poesis) and Skill (technè). So does Plato.

    I frown a little bit in your comments on “artsy” writing. There is a lot of enjoyment to be found in poetic prose. I enjoy read this style from time to time. I think it is unfair to say that it is not clear or concise. In many ways it is the most clear writing of all, conveying ideas or content a normative usea of language cannot always do. I want to say that I think you are too quick to condemn, and are not reflective of your own taste that has developed over time.

    Taste in art–from writing to painting–has plagued thinkers as well. From Immanuel Kant to sociologist Bordieu.

    One final point: you say that there is a “math” to writing. I agree here to a point. But I don’t think that necessarily forecloses writing from the category of art. There is a famous Greek sculptor (I can’t recall his name right now) who devised a mathematical formula for sculpting the perfectly shaped human bodies. Don’t forget, architecture, which is considered one of the first “Arts” is based on math and proportions. I think this is where your use of these terms, and your overall argument, faulters.

    Great read nonetheless.

    • David Shank Post author

      Yeah I agree there is much to appreciate in poetic prose. I think my main argument is against instances where the “art” gets in the way of the story. And I’m certainly not condemning figurative language, which I think is what you mean when you say that artful writing is better at “conveying ideas or content a normative usea of language cannot always do.”

      Mostly, art is subjective and so is the way we define it.

      Honestly, this wasn’t my most well-conceived post. I think I was feeling a bit pessimistic when I wrote it, which is actually something I’m going to touch on in my next post. I’m glad to get your opinion on it.