The Art of Writing
Date29 April 2016

This is a blog article, which expresses informal views.

As I settle down to write this article, with a few core ideas in my head, I think it’s going to be pretentious. I’m going to attempt to demystify ‘the art of writing’!

Writing as a technical art

I think writing is an art in most respects. In saying that, I’m not saying it cannot be distilled into a science. Art and science are two outlooks on the same creative process: art attempts to mystify it, and science attempts to demystify it. I’m saying that the distinction depends on how well-defined the creative process is intended to be.

We can turn this distinction back on itself, to dissect how art works, to help demystify it, and then use our findings to help make our art better.

What is art?

When we think of art, we might assume paintings by respected artists. Everyone has different tastes in art. Here, I’m taking a wider view, to regard art as the presented product of any creative process, where we’re not necessarily interested in exposing how it was done. Art is supposed to be magic, where the artist has a talent that allows them to create works that present new or enjoyable experiences for others.

What is the magic?

Presented art is a puzzle

The artist presents symbols to the observer, those symbols should create meaning, and the meaning emerges implicitly. Artists are puzzle-makers. They don’t usually deal with direct facts, but instead step around an idea, exposing different aspects of it, building up a picture.

Paintings are not usually photographic, but express patterns and abstract symbols that we recognise as being common to the objects or ideas that are being communicated. It is the artists job to do this as indirectly as possible. The success of art is usually measured by whether the observer manages to distil an understanding of the idea that the artist encoded in the work.

Artists create puzzles

The pleasure of consuming art is that of puzzle-solving. The symbols created by the artist are interpreted by the observer. Often, the whole picture may be incomplete, relying on the observer’s experience to fill in the gaps; there will be some assumptions about shared cultural background experience, which makes it easier to create the art concisely, to leave the minimum needed to convey the idea. This carries the risk that the observer does not have the experience necessary to interpret the art.

This brings me to the idea that we could ‘measure’ art, and find the causal links between artists techniques and their success. For example, a popular artist might present fairly simple puzzles that nearly everyone can solve, but also have a unique way of doing it that generates a buzz. A critically-acclaimed artist might create a very deep and complicated puzzle that most people cannot solve, using obscure symbols that require specialist knowledge, or abstractions that are far-removed from the reality enjoyed by most observers. This creates privileged cliques, which is rewarding for exclusionists, and repulsive to populists.

Having said that, success depends not on this distinction; instead it should be measured by criteria set by the artist. These criteria might be outside the purposes of this article, e.g. how much money it makes for the artist, how much public exposure it brings, or whether it earns medals or prizes, so I’d like to return to what makes ‘good art’.

I would regard each encounter separately, treating it as this: an artist communicating to an observer, using the language of their art. Assuming the intention was to be understood, then if the communication succeeded, then the art succeeded. It means that the symbols presented to the observer were recognised, interpreted, and combined, in the way that the artist expected.

We could also consider the observer’s puzzling to be a success. For surreal art, the observer’s thinking or meditation time is expected to be significantly longer than a straightforward realistic ‘still life’ rendering. Puzzles are likely to be deep, and the symbols very personal to the artist (even exclusive), so the artist’s success might be hit-or-miss. An observer might be forced to adopt an alternative point of view, and attempt interpretation from the assumed perspective: another key to unlocking the puzzle. Regardless, some art is intended to induce pleasure from the decoding process, rather than from the immediate communciation of an idea.

The written word

Now I come to conventional writing, particularly fiction in the medium of the written word. This medium is different from pictorial art: rather than showing a whole canvas immediately, authors of written fiction present their ideas in a linear sequence (regardless of the actual timeline), building situational ideas on the cultural language and experience that is shared between the author and reader. Puzzles are presented mostly as future unknowns, using the predicate symbols that describe a part of the situation, leaving ambiguity. The ‘plot’ is a device used to build a puzzle, so that there is a point in the story where the reader is invited to recognise that the puzzle needs solving by the agents within the story. It is then for the author to decide how to end the piece: whether to leave these loose ends, or to explain the resolving of the puzzles in away that satisfies the reader. Authors usually choose the latter, and leave a few loose ends so they can sell the next book in the series.

The success of a work of fiction depends on the intermediate puzzle created by the author, and on the resonance that the symbols present for the reader. These are the two aspects that form the basis of the connection between the artist and the observer.

In practice

Using these ideas, could we measure works, and profile genres or markets, to estimate how successful they will be, either artistically, or commercially? To some extent, we already have expectations about what might sell in volume: the guidelines that agents and publishers like to work with, e.g.:

  • Genre and plot type;
  • Length: 40 000 words for young adult fiction, 80 000 words for an adult novel;
  • Sentence length and vocabulary;
  • Character profile of the protagonist (age, etc);
  • Narration perspectives.

Then perhaps we could identify the cultural aspects referenced by the work, e.g. how many readers might have empathy for the main characters, whether their journey matches the readers’ (or whether the journey is escapism that appeals to their ambition).

Should we analyse works to identify their symbols, build up a network of presented ideas, see how each is explained in the story, and how well it connects to each reader’s experience and knowledge? With this information, we could calculate how obscure the symbols and connections are, quantify the art, and label it with profiles. Could we then assess its likely success in a target market?

Why we shouldn’t filter

While this looks like a valid process, it has flaws. If we use it as a filter for works that have potential to be published, then we will create a market full of bland portfolios, that discourages divergence and new reading experiences. Art is not just about creating puzzles that hit the magical depth of complexity; it’s about creating new experiences.

Make art!

I feel the need to wrap this up with something motivational. So here it is:

Create puzzles!

  • Create puzzles that are interesting to solve;
  • Create puzzles that connect with your targets;
  • Create puzzles in whatever medium you think fit;
  • Make art!