We use the two terms interchangeably in common use while each has a distinctive nuance and historically the titles represent unique roles in nautical vocabulary.
Before standing navies were established, armies used civilian ships to transport soldiers and their supplies. When the captain of a company of soldiers came aboard with troops for transport, he assumed military command of the ship. He determined its destination and, if the ship engaged in hostilities at sea, directed the battle.
A captain had overall authority, but the master maintained responsibility for sailing operations. The rise of steam-powered vessels phased out the need for sailing masters and the demise of the term ship’s master.
On civilian ships such as cruise vessels, the one in charge is officially the captain though sometimes called master. In popular usage, captain or skipper prevails over the term master for pleasure craft owners.
You’ll find the term captain employed in fire or police department hierarchies and on sports teams, but not master.
Simply put, the difference between the terms is that a master is someone who has control over something or someone while the captain is a chief or leader.
If we think about our writing as our ship, I prefer the term master of writing.
Why? Because a writer who controls her writing skill and, at the same time, understands the business aspects of publishing is more likely to be successful.
That doesn’t mean a writer can’t be a captain of writing and be successful too.
Being a leader (aka captain) in a genre or professional writing organization is not a bad thing as long as the leadership responsibility doesn’t hinder writing time.There are those rare individuals who can be both master and captain of their writing.
What do you think? Would you prefer to be a master or a captain of your writing?
I think I’m a cabin boy, just running around frantically trying to catch up.
Bob Mayer would say, “Either lead, follow or get out of the way.”