Is writing a science?

As a preamble to their performances, traditional storytellers in Majorca would say, “It was and it was not so.”

David Shields, Reality Hunger


In science, it’s received wisdom that if a research experiment is repeated using the same controls and variables and the results are the same, the findings of the research are taken to be true. A repeatable experiment proves that the results weren’t just some random, chance occurrence. And the more the experiment is repeated, getting the same results, the greater the likelihood that the results and interpretations of the results become accepted as fact. That’s why there will be 20 research projects on the same thing: repeatable is good.

That’s the scientific method and while it isn’t perfect, it is the best we have at a checks and balance system and process in science.

In the broad field of writing? It’s a bit different. You can follow the same path to writing as your favourite writer or take all the creative writing courses and still not get two pages out that are worth reading. Or you can produce 17 novels that no one wants to publish.

And yet, there is a growing business in teaching people how to write, a business that is now a revenue stream for colleges and universities. They all teach pretty much the same curriculum, taught by writers published in various genres, because really, the ‘rules’ of writing in North America are fairly standard with nuances specific to the genre one wishes to write in.

It’s encouraging that there are so many resources on writing essentially saying the same thing, but does this saying the same thing equate to the scientific method’s replication of results or repeatability?

Sure there’s a formula for business writing, creating headlines, popular romance novels, mainstream sci-fi, PR releases, media releases, annual reports, brochures, essays, dissertations, articles. But is a formula a science? What IS writing anyway?

Are the great reads and great writing examples of a formula? Or is it the confluence of a good story, striking the right tone, voice, language, point of view, timing?

Perhaps both.

A formula is just a mix of ingredients and the ingredients for writing are in all the textbooks, and writing courses across North America. But having the ingredients does confer a skill or talent or discipline or ability. I don’t know about you, but when I use the same ingredients as my friend the master chef and we make the same dish, mine does not taste anywhere near as sublime as hers does.  I will never cook as well as she does. Ever. Even when I follow the recipe. My friend the master chef says that she uses a recipe as a guideline only.

Oh. If I used recipes as a guideline, I believe I might starve.

But I get it. There are guidelines for writing well, too. It helps to know them and to practice them, but I’m not convinced it helps to follow the guidelines slavishly.

Notice I said guidelines help. They don’t make a creation any more than a list of ingredients does makes the final product. Whether a craft, a trade, an art or a science, it’s how it’s all put together.

In writing, it’s how the writer does the writering and puts it all together. So the writer can work with tone and voice and POV and setting and sentence structure and pacing and all of the other things that go into a piece of writing: that’s the science part. If ingredients as a concept does work, consider all the named parts of writing the building blocks or the tools of writing that a writer uses while writering.

What the writer brings is the ineffable part, the creation part, the artistry, the vision, the magic, the light dark beauty of it, the thing that is impossible to be bottled, labeled and sold.

So I wonder about the proliferation of the business of teaching people writing a la Suzuki method. But I wonder about its effect, at least here in North America; an increasing conformity, an ethic of concision? Better reading material? Or more pressure to be wild and different and outside the pack?

Perhaps I needn’t wonder about it too much because by all accounts 5 out of the 7 billion people on the planet want to be writers. That means we’re in for some fascinating, wild examples of great writing coming our way in the future, writing that doesn’t adhere to any formula, or any rules of literary writing and doesn’t worry about the science of, the art of or the mystique of writing. And that’s kind of exciting.


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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6 Responses to Is writing a science?

  1. Pingback: Art = Science? | The Happiness Complex

  2. WeeBanshee says:

    I loved your post as well. Adhering strictly to formulas in writing would seem to result in formulaic writing – reminds me of puppy mills, really. The essence of the writer has to be allowed to shine through. Personality, voice, quirkiness (quirky-ness?) is what gives a story its flavour. A humble opinion from a wee banshee…

    • fs says:

      Dear WB: Thank you :-). One does well to heed the thoughts, opinions, musings of a banshee, wee or not; particularly if she just moved to Toronto!! Seriously? Waves from Toronto.

  3. Katy says:

    What a great post. I love the writer/cooking analogy. So very well put.

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