“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial….” (Exodus 17:14).
Asking me to critique your writing and advise you on improving it is not unlike seeking my advice for your cooking.
I know good eating when I taste it, but don’t ask me how to get from a recipe to the dinner table. I’m completely out of my element.
But, okay, with “writing,” whatever that is and however we define it, I’m somewhat more experienced. And I am eager to learn this business of print communication and get it right.
I have been working at learning how to write since I was a teenager. Literally.
As Paul said about spiritual things, I do not consider myself to have attained (Philippians 3:12). So, please do not interpret any of what follows as Joe bragging on himself. Rather, it’s more like “here are some things I’m learning” about the craft of writing.
Maybe someone will benefit from it. I would have forty years ago if I’d come across it.
The other morning, I did something scary. A Facebook friend whom I know only from that medium posted an article on his blog advising readers on how they too can become writers. I went there and read it, and then, as humbly as I know how–my wife is smiling here–messaged him that under normal circumstances one might get by with some of the flaws in that article, but one that claims to teach people how to write should be held to a higher standard. (Some contractions were wrong, verbs did not agree with subjects, that sort of thing.)
To his credit, he reacted well. You never know. I thought of Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend….”
When a longtime friend messaged that he was writing a regular devotional for his family and friends and invited me to advise him as to how to improve it, I decided to go for broke. In giving him my opinion, I saturated my reply with softening agents such as “I could be wrong,” “This is just my opinion,” and “feel free to disagree.” (And meant every one of them!)
The counsel I gave him are pointers I wish someone had made to me long ago.
–I suggested he throw out the ancient stories and jokes gleaned from old sermons and give us his personal tales, things he has seen and experienced. No one else is telling your stories, I said. You are the authority on these.
The next devotional, he began with a fascinating account of something that happened to him in the ministry. It was so right, so satisfying, that I borrowed it and built an article for this blog on it. (Published as “The Wonderful Power of Soft Answers” on this website, January 17, 2014.)
–I suggested he write everything on his mind, then “save” it as a draft, and return to it a day or two later when he can read it dispassionately. He will see run on sentences, redundant phrases, and typos that were not obvious at first. “Editing” separates writers from typists.
–Finally, I suggested a number of small insights learned years ago from a course on writing from Word Publishing, taught by editor Floyd Thatcher and writer Charlie Shedd. That 12-cassette course changed forever the way this country boy turned out articles, whether for magazines or books or this blog. Some of the pointers they mentioned include:
a) Using active verbs instead of passive. Saying “the car was driven by a little old man” or “the phone was answered by the maid” sounds weaker than “An old man was driving that car” or even “the maid rushed across the parlor, grabbed the phone on the second ring, and answered.”
b) Replacing forms of “to be” (was, is, were, am, are, etc) with active and energetic verbs. Instead of “he was there in the room,” we might consider “Charlie stood against the wall, near the back door, but at least he was inside.” We’re told “to be” is the weakest verb form.
c) And then the business of editing. When writing an article, your first priority is to get it down. Write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about form, grammar, whether the subject agrees with the verb, or syntax. You’ll take care of those things in the editing.
d) Do not repeat the same word in the (ahem) same sentence. See that? A better way would be to say: Do not use a word twice in the same sentence. Or, do not repeat a word in the same sentence. Or best of all, do not repeat a word in a sentence. (You keep looking for ways to take out all redundancies.)
e) There are exceptions to every rule. (Including this one, as the joke goes.) Sometimes you will repeat the same word several times in one sentence in order to make a point. And there will be occasions when you may overuse “to be.” Bill Clinton did it: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (smiley face goes here)
f) Don’t get too pretty or clever. Floyd Thatcher says a good rule to follow is, “When you have a word or expression that you dearly love and cannot live without it in the piece you’re writing, strike it out! It’s in the way of what you are trying to communicate.”
Well, there it is.
One final thing…
If the object of your writing is to impress people and to brag about “my third book is coming out in the Spring,” well sir, good luck with that.
But if the Lord has taught you some things you’d like to pass along to others, you have arrived at a great time. With the internet and laptops and the availability of your own blogs for a few dollars a year, no one is stopping you.
What you must not do is try to figure out “why” you want to write before you get started. You don’t have to know why so long as you are confident you do. The “why” will come later.
Over the years, I have run into preachers who vow that “Some day when I retire, I’m going to write a book.” They almost never do, and for good reason. You cannot live 60 or 70 years without doing a thing, and then suddenly go do it. You need to get started in small increments early and stay with it.
If you enjoy sitting at the computer jotting down a few thoughts or a funny story or an account of something unforgettable, you are a writer. So, get on with it, friend.