Writing – Art or Craft?
by Hugh AshtonI have lived in Japan for the past 21 years, coming from the UK, where I had worked in the IT industry in support and technical writing. Originally, I came over to write manuals for musical instruments and audio equipment, working for a Japanese subcontractor specializing in documentation. For the past 12 years or so I have been working on a freelance basis, providing writing and editing services to companies and individuals (mostly in Japan) who need polished professional English.
This has taught me to regard quality writing as a craft, not an art. In the same way that a cabinetmaker will take pride in turning an exquisite chair leg on a lathe, but would never regard himself as an artist. I aim to produce well-turned sentences that do not come under the heading of artistry, but serve a definite purpose: to communicate meaning clearly and simply while retaining a certain elegance.
This applies to almost all aspects of my work whether I am writing a user manual for a piece of electronic equipment, a speech to be delivered at a conference, a magazine article, or presentation slides for a sales promotion.
This is not to say that emotions and feelings are absent from the writing I produce there is room for the human touch even in technical manuals, but the primary aim of most of my writing is to communicate facts and ideas, not feelings and emotions.
One aspect of the writing craft, probably unique to those living in foreign countries, is the concept of “rewriting.” Japanese teaching of English is typically poor (there is usually no problem with Japanese people learning English, despite their protests), and there is a need for rewriting by “native speakers” (the phrase is used a lot here) of concepts expressed by Japanese writers in English.
Sometimes mistakenly referred to as “proofreading” by the Japanese client, such work can involve the complete destruction and reassembly of the text, referring to the original Japanese on which the English was based. Sometimes, on reading the English version of a speech or presentation, I find that the order of thoughts and ideas follows a Japanese pattern, which would be unacceptable to an English audience. In these cases, I recast the whole piece, explaining carefully to the client that I am not producing a translation, and sometimes have the satisfaction of knowing that the Japanese has been subsequently altered to match my English version. In this case, the cabinetmaker has successfully reshaped a square peg to fit a round hole craftsmanship rather than artistry once more.
I am proud to call myself a craftsman, or even a wordsmith, for this kind of work. Fiction, of course, is a different kettle of piranha, but that can wait for another article.