Some tips on writing that I posted on a friend’s blog back in 2010, but which have gone missing from the internet since then. Lightly revised and updated, they still represent my best advice about the craft of writing.
1. Read for craft. Once you’ve got it in your head that you want to be a writer, read everything with an eye to how it was put together. When you read a sentence that really gets the job done, try to figure out how the author wrote it. Try to imagine how the ideas in it came into the mind of the author, and what decisions he made about assembling it as you see it before you now. I hope this doesn’t sound dreary or gruesome, like stopping a fun game of fetch to dissect your puppy and see how it runs so good. Eyeballing craftsmanship is just how skilled practitioners work in any field: while I’m just enjoying a concert, my musician friend is both enjoying it and simultaneously making a mental note about a fingering technique to try. Cooks are asking for recipes or figuring them out on their own; woodworkers are checking out the joints and pegs in any good furniture they come across; public speakers are thinking, “Hey, I could deliver that joke even better than that guy;” and gardeners are spying on each others’ plots.
You can’t take apart every good sentence you see, but you’ve got to do it often enough that you learn to keep scanning for the next instructive specimen, so that one part of your mind is always reading as a writer.
2. Read widely (for theologians: Read more than theology): Reading for craft means you’re going to have to read more than just theology. In addition to keeping up with the current literature, ideas, and arguments in your field, you’ve got to make room for some good essays and non-fiction writing (which will be most applicable to what we write as theologians). Check ALDaily regularly: Read articles there based on how well written they are, no matter what they’re about. Read art and music criticism that emphasizes description as much as evaluation. Edge your way into fiction and poetry. Keep up a steady diet of classics. Read through the most appealing parts of the curriculum of the Torrey Honors Institute, and keep going from there.
3. Get interested. Don’t write about something until you’re genuinely interested in it, and then write about it in a way that keeps you engaged. Find the words that draw you in, the sentences that pull you along, and the movements of thought that keep your own mind alert. If you’re interested in the movement of thought that you’re developing, you will naturally write with the right amount of drama. That’s because you will be acting from a desire to spend the right amount of words on the current subject, and an eagerness to get on to the next one. If you’re in a situation where you have to write about something uninteresting to you, sorry. Avoid these situations if possible, or develop the capacity to be interested in anything.
4. Get critiques if you can. If you have an editor whose judgment you trust and who will give your prose their full attention, milk it. These people are rare, so you won’t necessarily be able to find one. If you do, consider paying them cash money (or bartering for their time, or cooking for them) to get them to critique your work. If you can’t get what you want from somebody with a lot of editorial experience, get a good amateur to read your work out loud and tell you what they hear. Non-editors usually know more, and have more opinions, than they think they do. Any mind that is not your own will give you a place to stand for critical leverage.
5. Catch yourself doing something good, and try to keep doing it. Exterminate the icky bits, but put most of your energy into finding and perpetuating what works. Be careful not to spend too much time diagnosing what went wrong. Your bad writing is stinky stuff; flush it away with minimal analysis. When you write a good sentence or passage, put it up on your wall and be proud of it, so you can figure out why things went so well that time and how you can do it again. Writing is lonely indoor work that depresses the animal spirits; be positive and upbeat whenever it’s justified.
6. Revise. Perfect sentences may sometimes spring from your forehead, fully-armed and filled with wisdom, but that’s sort of rare outside of Olympus. For most of us, most of the time, the only good writing is re-writing. Once you know for sure what you want to say, try saying it several different ways. Then pick the best, cannibalize the rest for spare parts.
7. Write a lot. Don’t publish everything you write (not even on a blog), just get a safe place to write down as much stuff as you can. Try to write at least several hundred words a day, maybe a thousand. Hit “publish” on whatever’s good enough to share, because it’s important to “ship it,” in Seth Godin’s terms.
8. Don’t think very hard about the audience. Focus on the content. Fix your mind on what you are describing, and get it right. You don’t know your audience (they are your invisible friends and they might be imaginary), and your audience doesn’t know what it wants until it sees what you’ve got. Instead, devote your attention to the subject matter that you are describing. I know this piece of advice is the opposite of what most people say; the conventional wisdom says you should think a lot about your audience. Let Jacques Barzun talk you out of this. Try to find good art or music or movie critics, because they tend to be among the best practitioners of this craft.
9. Try to be helpful. When you do turn your attention to the imaginary audience, do what you can to help them: help them understand, make your meaning clear, try to sort things out for them, try to share what you’ve seen, give them something worth thinking about, cut away confusion, bring in things they weren’t going to be considering if you hadn’t brought them in. Welcome them into your little sentences and be hospitable. Say please and thank you. Consider their needs. When I get a few pages into Truly Terrible Writing, I want to shout “Who are you trying to help?” or “Are you even trying to help anybody?” So much writing out there is devoted to something other than using good words to do good works. For a Christian, that is unworthy.
10. Make top ten lists. Whatever you write has twice the AQ (awesomeness quotient) if it’s in a top ten list. Nobody ever gets tired of those.