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Is Writing a Craft or a Trade? Why Writers Should Care

Writing is sometimes called a craft. Sometimes it’s called a trade. What’s the difference, and why should writers care? Well, writer, if you care about words, then the difference is critical to how you approach writing and, therefore, your life and your livelihood.

WORD NERD ALERT!

Can we get a little word-nerdy here?

What follows is an exploration of the origins of these two words: craft and trade.

‘Craft’ Word Origin and Meaning

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, craft can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic language where it meant strength or skill—possibly as far back as 500 B.C.E., if not earlier.

By 900 C.E., the definition (in Late Old English) expanded to include ingenuity and mental ability paired with a learned skill. Think of it as brains meets brawn, like Beauty and the Beast.

That brought us to the sense of craft as a skilled trade or an item made by a skilled worker. For example, a hand-carved wooden whistle is crafted; however, a plastic, mass-produced children’s sippy cup is not a craft (even though much skill was required in the product design and manufacturing).

Notice there is no financial component attached to this progressive definition: Craft is a skill-based pursuit.

Now, how about we put that other five-letter word under the etymological microscope?

‘Trade’ Word Origin and Meaning

Trade emerged from the Proto-Germanic root word meaning predictable path, related to the word tread. Initially trade referred to a ship’s path for exchange from one port to another—a predictable path for the exchange of resources, and, deplorably, humans, as in the slave trade.

Trade doesn’t appear fully formed as relating to a person’s line of work until until the 1540s when it came to mean a habitual line of work for which a tradesperson earns resources. Unlike craft, trade definitely has a financial component, blossoming fully in the phrase commercial trade.

Interesting side note: Trade wind preserves in verbal amber the initial meaning of the word trade in that it referred to a wind that exhibits a predictable directional behavior. It does not use trade in the sense of ships in pursuit of commerce following a fair wind. Bear that in mind if you’re writing pirate fiction, matey.

‘Craft’ Versus ‘Trade’ in the Real World of Construction

A good friend of mine is a very talented builder of high-end homes. His work is beautiful and inspires house envy. There is nothing cookie cutter about his houses, either. Each one is unique.

This guy can do it all, and I should know. (I’ve seen him in action and nearly wore myself out working side-by-side with him on a renovation.) I asked him about the difference between craft and trade. He only took a moment to answer.

The biggest difference is finesse. A tradesman will force something together, but a craftsman can smooth it in, because he knows all the techniques, all the tricks of the trade. People who work in the trades do what they’re told but the craftsman solves problems with efficiency.”

Wow. That’s hitting pretty close to home for writers.

From design to foundation pouring, from framing to finishing flourishes, my friend can do plumbing, electrical, and roofing, and that makes him a jack of all trades. However, he excels at carpentry. His knowledge of all those other components of house-building serve only to make him the best damn carpenter in the Upper Midwest.

I asked him about his multiple skills, and he gave me plenty of examples where he identifies as being “only” a tradesperson: things like cement work and finishing trim. He doesn’t consider everything he does to be “craftsman” level, but he’s proficient in many trades.

Another insight into the craft: my pal said that when he is employing his craftsmanship, he creates a flawlessness, the perfect intersection of skill, effort, and patience.

“I’m good enough that no one knows that I did it better than anyone else. But I know.”

The Writing Craft & The Writing Trade

Clearly, both terms, craft and trade can apply to writing. We can show up every day at the computer or at the notebook and keep at it, pumping out words. We follow the advice of more seasoned writers further along in their writing careers and (hopefully) further along in their writing craft than we are. We might even make a living (ideally) from our writing.

That’s the trade part, merely the entrance ticket that gets you into the mechanics of writing production.

Children are burgeoning tradespeople. They have unfettered creativity paired with a limited skillset. Adults encourage their efforts by hanging drawings of eleven-fingered Mrs. Clauses in their work cubicles. If the child increases their skills over time, something happens: a wild alchemy linking imagination and transporting others into the artwork.

Over time, your inherent strengths and predilections merge with writing chops to form something only you can deliver in your writing craft. Yes, you must be a jack of all trades and learn a smattering of vocabulary, grammar, story structure, character development and all the other functional components of storytelling.

Realistically, however, you’ll master only a subset of these skills.

You might be a word-efficient and spartan writer like Hemingway. You might apply efficiency with surprising twists in the short-story form like Raymond Carver. You might combine lyrical narrative with heart-wrenching storylines like Barbara Kingsolver. You might let your wild imagination explode the boundaries of the known world while walking in parallel with its ruins like Susanna Clarke.

More than just winning the book-deal lottery, these writers practice the craft of writing.

From the components of story, they wizard whole worlds with their writing witchcraft.

They don’t necessarily pump out words and just show up every day. As masters of their craft, they make stories that are unique to them and seamless. They’re good enough to know they did better than anyone else could—not through arrogance, but through the hard-won application of skill and persistence.

Where are you at in your writing career? Are you working the trade? Are you working towards craft?

Understanding the difference necessarily affects your next writing session, and the thousands beyond that one.

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