Science First, Art Second

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Middle-Earth. Long before anyone knew who J.R.R. Tolkien was, he was learning the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. And the same can be said for every successful writer under the sun.

Levi Sweeney

What do Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Louis Sachar all have in common? Aside from their all being notable American authors, they all had to learn their ABCs.

Every successful person in any field always starts small. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saw goes, so too did J. R. R. Tolkien not create Middle-Earth all at once. Rome started off as a minor fortress in the middle of ancient Italy, and Tolkien first began formulating the ideas which would turn into The Lord of the Rings while serving as a soldier in the First World War.

The point here is that even the greatest authors of all time had to learn the mechanics of their language before moving on to more artistic, literary elements of their craft. Before one can learn the art of writing, one must first understand the discipline’s science.

Far into their respective pasts, the authors I have mentioned all mastered technical skills with clearly demarcated, codified rules before moving on to more advanced subjects. An accountant must understand the type of basic arithmetic which every fourth grader is expected to know thoroughly. So too does an author need to know what an adjective is, when and when not to use contractions, and how to spell “necessary.”

Matters of style, such as when to purposely avoid run-on sentences and when to employ them for special effect, are next on the list of things to learn. The same is the case for the use of adverbs, not to mention how to create an arresting opening at the beginning of a piece. How quickly was I able to get your attention at the beginning of this blog post when I name-dropped three famous writers in the form of a question?

With this solid foundation in English composition, a writer is free to move on to more sophisticated topics, such as plot, characterization, and theme. The writer who can grab the reader’s attention from the beginning while knowing which indefinite articles to use in specific instances is ready to learn three-act structure.

Similarly skilled authors are ready to try and infuse a unique voice into each fictional person once they know the ins-and-outs of quotation marks. A particularly sharp novice writer might even know that it is in fact acceptable in many cases to have a character say “gonna” as opposed to “going.” “Gonna” is an example of incorrect spelling which would be unacceptable in a research paper. But it is more than proper to use that word when trying to subtly imply a tone of voice or dialect which a fictional character might possess.

If these bits of advice sound intuitive and obvious, then rest assured, because they are. But plenty of novice writers who dream of literary success simply will not reach their full potential because they do not understand such principles. Such novice writers dream of being the next Isaac Asimov, but they cannot correctly employ commas or define what a homonym is. If such neophyte authors cannot master such basic rules of the English language (or any language), then how can they effectively communicate something as profound and complex as what constitutes love?

The solution is simple, though not necessarily easy. Those wishing to be writers must write and write and write and read and read and read. Stephen King cut his teeth as a wordsmith writing for his high school’s student newspaper. Lee Child won his bread for almost twenty years by writing television commercials and news reports before introducing the world to Jack Reacher.

And you, dear reader? If you have read any work by any of these authors, then chances are that you can appreciate their talents. If you are a member of Critique Circle, it is probable that you want to improve your skill as a writer. And if you are reading this blog post, it is almost without question that you intend to truly study your craft as well as acquire casual feedback from your peers. If you want to be a master, you must first be a student.

And it all starts with learning that “A” stands for “author.”

19+ Comments

Wendyg

Or, to look at it from the opposite perspective:

Some people can learn the science but still not have a great storytelling gift nor a great storytelling concept to sell. Not all artists need the mechanics first if they are original and have the talent.

Did children who are successful authors mean they have learnt all these mechanics at a very very young age?

Does the fact that someone is uneducated in reading and writing (and who therefore would need all their stories transcribed for them) mean that they cannot tell an engaging and fascinating story to others? Our storytelling heritage, since long before reading and writing was invented, is based on the imagination, not the mechanics of a story. Art comes first (stories and cave paintings) - the mechanics can be invented or inserted afterwards.

Does someone who has english as a second language (British English or American English or the English used in other countries) mean that they will never write a successful story unless they learn all these mechanics first (some of which can be translated/changed by editors anyway)?

Have all successful authors learnt the mechanics you describe (which sounds like it would preclude the need for an editor), or is it just a percentage (and if so, then what percentage)?

There is a whole school of thought that believes that artistic abilities of children should not be stifled by forcing mechanics on them first (give the child a violin and let them play, rather than teach them ‘music’). Yes an author or another artist might and probably will improve their writing etc. the more they learn (even a non-artistic engine mechanic will increase skill over time) but that doesn’t preclude them being successful early in their career regardless.
However, no system will always suit every talent, which is why generalisations (in either direction) can be dangerous to impose.

In answer to your question: How quickly was I able to get your attention at the beginning of this blog post when I name-dropped three famous writers in the form of a question?
Not at all. One I don’t like. One I haven’t heard of. And the other isn’t current.
If, instead, you had stated that 70-90% of all successful (defining success) authors in the current market knew the mechanics to the level described before becoming successful, and didn’t need an editor to make radical recommendations to get them there, then you would have got my attention a lot faster. However, even the starts of stories don’t universally appeal to every reader, so it is hard to create a successful science based formula that always works.

learn three-act structure
There are a lot of brilliant authors and stories that do not use this structure. Have a look at some of @1910orange posts for some great examples of authors and stories.
You also mention commas, which professional editors agree is a style choice. There are so much of the ‘mechanics’ that are not set in stone that it is hard to define what a successful storyteller would need to perfect as science, before they engage in art.

Sometimes, being too prescriptive (or seeking a winning ‘formula’) can stifle talent, rather than encourage it to blossom. Sometimes, more than one road leads to Rome…

I certainly don’t disagree that the mechanics can help a great story. But, they cannot guarantee to develop a great artist and can ruin the talent that existed. A lot of well-known authors later books have lost the ‘spark’ that their early books had and thus become more mechanical in nature and (varying on the opinion of the reader) less satisfying.

This, of course, is just a personal opinion from someone that has been reading different authors from you and who is playing devil’s advocate here because i do strongly believe that the talent should be improved by the mechanics and not the other way around.

Jun-01 at 06:41

Jcgreen

You can teach someone the mechanics. Art is more intrinsic. You need that creative spark first. And in an oral tradition, that might suffice. But you do have to learn the mechanics of writing, if you are to put that creativity on the page. Many a time doing a review, I’ve been bogged down by the poor writing ability, such that I haven’t been able to assess the benefit of the story itself. You will struggle to get an agent, if your work is littered with technical mistakes.

Where I would disagree with the post is that you don’t need to know the mechanics in a definitional sense. An author doesn’t need to know the definition of a homonym or run-on sentence. They just need to recognise that something is wrong when they come upon them. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the three-act structure is, but I probably use it.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter is excellent story telling. However, it’s littered with run-on sentences. I would certainly recommend she gets a better copy editor.

Jun-01 at 07:16

Onalimb

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

With apologies to the author, before we attempt to answer this, shouldn’t we question whether it makes any sense to ask it? Why assume linearity?

Let’s assume that art influences emotion and science influences intellect. Storytelling is a subset of communication. Communication is used, and always has been used, both to transfer information (or misinformation) and to influence behaviour. Those two functions are so intertwined that science itself suffers a certain amount of pollution from ingrained assumptions that have no basis in fact.

When we write stories, we’re taking our readers on a journey. Their engagement with that journey, and their willingness to stay on it, depends on our ability to influence their emotions. At the same time, that influence wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t agree on a specific set of rules to ensure comprehension. We also have rules that help us to influence emotion in reliable ways. But one isn’t learned before the other. We learn them together. If we got information first and added art second, we’d be more aware of the ways in which language is used to influence emotion, and therefore behaviour. It’s insidious because it’s intertwined and complex in its relationships.

Jun-01 at 10:35

Scuffling

Beginning, middle, end?

Jun-01 at 11:16

Wendyg

From the reedsy.com site (although i’ve seen more complex versions of the diagram):

Jun-01 at 11:32

Scuffling

I guess everyone’s an expert.

Jun-01 at 11:43

Leexid

As a one-time avid SF reader, I haven’t read much of it in years because the stories became more technically accurate, but rather boring. Sure, you most definitely can lose some readers with un-researched or incorrect info, but for me, the story is more important. It lost the excitement and “wonder” I had at one time.

Jun-01 at 12:16

Drorios

I agree with much of what the article has to say. For a writer, language skills are vital. And it’s not as if creativity is separate from language. As we teach ourselves new skills, there’s no reason we can’t utilize these skills when drafting. Writing, like any other creative endeavor, is a self-development ritual. Expecting creativity alone to always carry the weight is like begging for lightning in a bottle.

Jun-01 at 16:13

1910orange

Why separate creativity from the rules of the language?

Jun-01 at 17:11

Nathanj

Great things to think about in the article.

It’s the headline that doesn’t quite sit right with me.
Why does one have to learn science and art in that particular order?

And the same can be said for every successful writer under the sun

EVERY successful writer in the Earth’s Solar system learned science first?
Such an extraordinary claim should be supported by evidence.
Three examples are not enough if a single counterexample can contradict the claim.

Jun-02 at 00:10

Lanis43

Science is great but as an Artist, I’d have to choose art first or better yet you can multitask and do both. One subject I find interesting (in a good way) is Economics, and even though it includes math, I still love to learn about it, and it quickly became one of my favorite subjects. But art is at the top of my list. You could say art is science (it’s been proven to help people relive stress)

“Traditionally, art and science have been treated as two separate disciplines, but when they are studied together it’s clear to see the impact one has on the other. A great deal of creativity is required to make scientific breakthroughs, and art is just as often an expression of (or a product of) scientific knowledge.”

If you want to read the whole article, here’s the link. The STEAMy Relationship Between Art and Science

Jun-08 at 07:43

1910orange

This article refers to the science of writing. I.e. language rules and writing rule of thumbs.

Jun-08 at 11:04

Lanis43

It also mentions art (painting) and science at thIt also mentions art (painting) and science at the beginning.

Jun-08 at 22:21

Caelli

Being a craftsperson who loves to be persnickety and get the details right in my other crafts. I find myself strangely at odds with this particular viewpoint. So much writing is literally crushed under the heels of technical nitpicking. Writing is one craft I find that could really do with a bit of loosening up around this subject. Much published writing is simply dry and awful to read these days. Having lost all sense of the authors voice to put forth article after article of dry matter without humour nor character.

Many literary classics are littered with writing don’ts. Sorry but I do not count Stephen King as being a writing great. Being a bestselling prolific writer is not the same thing as being a great writer. I cannot read his work, it’s dull. He caters well to popular taste but that doesn’t mean what he does is something to aim for. Often what makes us love, or hate an author are the writing fails contained within their works. I would rather that than the bland popular stuff so common today.

Writing is one art, where the mechanics have overshadowed the art. The forum here is filled with people feverishly creating their writing do and don’t lists and in the process probably killing their art and their love of it. While I agree that the average high school graduate these days has a shocking grasp of grammar and literacy in general. That isn’t their fault. Schools stopped teaching grammar decades ago. But even so, the overall tone of this opinion piece is pretty stuffy and even makes me want to quit writing. Shouldn’t we do be encouraging people to write more, rather than less?

I also paint, I draw, I sculpt and play an instrument. And let me tell you, maintaining a love of the art through the pain of the learning curve is hard. There has to be something in it for the artist to even embark upon, let alone sustain themselves through the Everrest climb which is learning any art form. If my art teachers had forbidden me to attempt a portrait until I had learned colour theory, gesture drawing, life drawing and anatomy, I would never have persevered.

The goal of every writer isn’t necessarily finding an agent and being published. Just as the goal of every artist isn’t to hang in the Louvre, or be sold by Sotherby’s. Being published is the end of a long apprenticeship so why bog yourself down with the requirements of that from the start?

I write nonsense verse just for the hell of it and kill every known grammar sacred cow in the process. Fun absolutely has to be a part of it, otherwise you’re just causing yourself pain and ruining whatever joy it may have brought you. We also have to learn to experiment, and that doesn’t happen while you have an inner critic telling you apostrophe’s don’ go there, your sentences are running on and you haven’t hooked the reader sufficiently with your opening sentence.

If you think painters are precious and neurotic, they’ve got nothing on writers…Lol! I was going to edit this for the spelling and grammar fails. But no, I think I’ll let them stubbornly stand like a pebble you can’t get out of your shoe.

Jun-09 at 08:32

Lanis43

I was just thinking that maybe I should at least read some of his work (because I’m writing a book that contains horror or suspense) but now having read your post, I wonder if I should. I’ve never read any of his work before. Or really seen any of the movies either.

Jun-30 at 23:33

Jimvread

It’s never a bad thing to read someone’s work. Especially someone who’s clearly had some success with their stories and storytelling. Having the kind of acclaim that King has enjoyed doesn’t mean he’s some quintessential writer or a pinnacle of the art. It DOES mean, his stories have mass appeal and that means he at least spoke to his audience in his day. I personally loved The Gunslinger and enjoyed the rest of the Dark Tower series. I also enjoyed the Tommyknockers. That’s all I’ve read of his and I’ve never seen any of his movies either. “Dull” is a word I personally find difficult to ascribe to either of those books. YMMV

There is no such thing as one writer who perfected the art and we should all aspire to be like them. But every writer we read will offer us something and help us to find our own voice. Even if you hate King, his work will help hone yours.

To @Caelli 's point, I 100% agree you cannot get bogged down in the grammar minutia. You have to get your story down and in front of people. Grammar serves to make your statements clear to as wide of an audience as possible not because sentences and paragraphs will be simple and convey your thoughts perfectly, but because, if necessary, a reader can parse out what was in the sentence and figure out what that sentence was trying to say. You can have a grammatically correct sentence that is horrific to read, but you can go back and work out the subject, object, tense, etc and figure it out eventually. That’s great for legal, academic, and technical writing. Not great for works intended to be engaging for a reader. That said, falling too far from the grammar train leaves you unintelligible to a wider and wider range of people and is also not engaging. Can’t so what want you you ever do, or you end up with word vomit.

Jul-01 at 05:25

1910orange

I’d recommend reading king’s book. Then read works from other writers and compare. I prefer Lovecraft’s style. For someone more contemporary, I prefer neil Gaiman to Stephen king.

I am studying Ernest Hemingway’s style currently.

Jul-01 at 07:30

Lanis43

Thank you for the recommendations! I’m gonna try my best to read one of them. I also agree with the other things you said. Sometimes I’ll redo a sentence and make a informal instead of formal but it mostly depends on the genre. I love both equally.

Jul-01 at 17:46

Lanis43

Thank you so much! Yes, Lovecraft’s writing style is amazing. I also like Doyle and Poe. Poe’s writing is so well thought out and dark, it’s lovely!

Jul-01 at 17:47
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