做 and 作 are both translated as "to do" or "to make".
How can I tell when I should use one or the other?
Some real life examples to help identify the differences:
In general, "做" is almost always a verb that has some real meanings. It is very close to English word "do" in its verb form and "make". E.g. "Do your job!" = "做好你的工作!", "do nothing"="什么也不做", "make love" = "做爱", "make some cakes" = "做些蛋糕", etc.
For the word "作", in my personal opinion for now, acts as a function word (虚词) more often than having some real meanings. E.g. "作为" = "as/act as", "装作" = "pretend as". In these examples, it is really close to "as".
One of the most common "real meaning" usages of "作" is "compose": "作曲" = "compose a music", "创作" = "compose/create/write".
Another very common exception of "作" is the word "作文". It is a noun means "essay" or generally the "writing assignments" for students. Without checking it up, I don't even know what exactly "作" in "作文" means.
All in all, "做" is much more widely used as it is really similar as English "make" and "do".
Flake has a really good answer, but I thought I'd add a favorite example of mine.
工作 and 做工
Having a job that you do is 工作 not very specific, rather abstract. You go somewhere to think thoughts and do things that makes the counter in your bank account go up once every month. A part of your identity; an occupation.
Carving a spoon out of a piece of wood, or creating a vase out of clay is 做工. A highly tangible result of what you do with your hands.
Getting up in the morning and going to your 工作 could very well mean doing some 做工, but whereas one is high level and abstract, the other one is quite specific (and often relates to working with your hands).
These two differences apply to the usage of 作 and 做 in other contexts as well.
So, just as Flake says, 作ing a piece of music isn't so much the actual writing notes on a paper; it is more about hearing the different instruments harmonize, the beat, the melody etc.
做ing a vase out of clay means actually shaping a lump of dirt into somehing that holds flowers in a pretty way.
As an extension to Flake's answer:
做 in most cases do not involve creative activity, in another word, usually do not involve mind work. As in 做工(work), 做饭(cook). 作 in most cases is something creative.As in 作曲(compose), 创作(write).
做 sometimes means actual action or acting
作 is for abstracted meanings
in fact even many native speakers are not very clear of that
I could be totally off-base on this, because my Chinese experience is colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong, but here's my $0.02. Generally from my experience, 作 is used in situations where you're doing something that has an end and an output, such as the Cantonese phrase 作准备. 做 seems to be used for things that are more ongoing, such as 做工作. Please somebody come along and correct me if this is wrong, because I'd like to know the answer to this as well.
做：The verb 'do'. 作：everything else.
As a professional user of Chinese for more than a quarter century I don't know what the character 作 mean independently. So you don't have to either.
I have found a topic talking about these two words. It's realy complicated. Url is here: http://xh.5156edu.com/page/z9007m3693j18792.html Hard to translate all.
做 (pinyin: zuò) can only be used as a verb. Its meanings include:
1). create; make
e.g.: 做衣服(zuò yī fú, means “make clothes”); 这把凳子是塑料做的(zhè bǎ dèng zǐ shì sù liào zuò de, means “this chair is made of plastic”)。
e.g.: 做样子(zuò yàng zǐ)
3). to have relationship with somebody
e.g.: 做朋友(zuò péng yǒu, means “become friends”)
4). used as…
e.g.: 这块木板可以做椅子(zhè kuài mù bǎn kě yǐ zuò yǐ zǐ, means “this board can be used as a chair”)
5). to be…
e.g.: 做演员(zuò yǎn yuán, means “to be an actor”)
Except for verb, 作 can be used as a noun as well.
1). as a verb.
作 comprises lots of meaning when being a verb, such as “write” in 写作, “bestir” in 振作, etc.
2). as a noun (pinyin:zuò).
As a noun, 作 mainly refers to works such as 作品、作业、杰作、著作, and career such as 工作.
3). as a noun (pinyin:zuō).
Under this condition, 作 is different from 作 above. It pronoounces zuō and only used in “作坊”. Except for 作坊, all 作 pronounce zuò.
When speaking of the differences between 作 and 做, it primarily lies in when they are used as a verb. The differences can be summerized as three points.
1). 做 is usually used to refer to something specific which you can see or touch such as 做衣服 and 做作业, while 作 is to describe something abstract like 作弊, 作曲, 作孽.
2). The objects following 做 tends to be neutral, like 做衣服, 做梦, 做东, while 作 usually describes something negative like 作弊 and 作假.
3). 做 can be only used as a verb, while 作 can be used as a verb as well as a noun.
Translation of the text <http://xh.5156edu.com/page/z9007m3693j18792.html> (above): (translator's notes in
- <作> and <做> 可以 interchangeably use.
(1) "用做"之义, "作" and "做" are generally interchangeable. 《Modern Chinese Dictionary》 (Year 2005; 6th print) lets "做"-word meaning-⑥ be solved ((explain)) as "当做", 并 gives-example: "treeskin ((bark)) 可以～((做)) paper-making 的 material|this 篇 essay 可以～((做)) teaching-resource。" uses-that-which-is "做". 而《Term Ocean》"满江红"词条: "plants 名……全草可作 fishes and domestic-animals 的 feed-material……" uses-that-which-is "作". 做抵押、做纪念等，also 可 use "作". But those of "副词((adverb))作状语((作 adverb clause))", by convention, use "作" and not "做".
Alternative translation: (translator's notes in
- <作> and <做> can be used interchangeably.
(1) "用做" (("use as")) and "用作" (("use as")) are generally interchangeable. Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (2005; 6th edition):
<做> (6th meaning) = <当做> (("treated as"))
illustrating it with:
• <Bark can be 做 ((treated)) as paper-making material.>
• <This essay can be 做 ((treated)) as teaching resource.>
Cihai (under entry <满江红>) ((?)):
<Plants can be 作 ((use/treated)) as feed for fishes/livestock>
<做纪念> ((do-commemorate)) ((commemorating)) can also be written with <作>. But in <adverb can be 作 as adverbial clause> etc, by convention <作> is used, not <做>.
I'll translate some of the rest of the article with every 10 votes !