Saturday, December 22, 2007

On Writing

I struggled with writing sermons my first few years in the ministry. I would preach the manuscript and leave feeling very unsatisfied. I would ask my wife what she thought, what the main point seemed to be and sometimes I was really crushed when she had to guess, or knew it because she knew me, but not from what I had preached. It was a depressing time. I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to communicate, but it wasn't happening. Forcing the words in my brain to get out on paper wasn't so easy. I finally realized the problem was I was trying to be subtle and nuanced. I was trying to create an effect instead of words.

I saw a similar tendency in a young preacher who shared his sermons with me (this is vague, and a terrible sentence, but I don't want to be more specific and have everyone know who I'm talking about). He was a very good writer, a sharp student, a thoughtful and caring man. But occasionally I'd review a sermon of his and ask, "What exactly do you want to say in this section?" He'd think for a moment, and then tell me quite clearly and coherently. His writing--and mine--improved the moment I told him, "Go right now and type what you just said to me. Just write what you want to say and don't worry about it being too blunt or simple." It's advice I am still trying to take to heart myself.

Many of us have had the amazing experience of watching someone's argument build up, layer upon layer, until, in the last paragraph or chapter, the author with a flourish reveals his conclusion, "Thus the sun must revolve around the earth!" We gasp at how skillful he was in leading us right to where he wanted us. It is a shocking experience, to be pulled along, hook-line-and-sinker by an amazing thinker who convinces you unwittingly and forces you to his own conclusion. Or at least the reasonableness of his conclusion. In fiction, mystery writers are particularly gifted at this, especially when the perp is not some deus ex machina but has been dropping bread crumbs throughout the story. Whether reading fiction or non-fiction, that experience can be electrifying, seeing the power of words, of arguments, of leading a reader in the direction you have planned, carrying him through until he's convinced in the end.

Attempting to emulate this without the skill and gift is a fatal mistake. I can't do this, at least not by sheer will. It takes an organized, subtle, logical mind to write in an organized, subtle, and logical way. It cannot be forced, and it cannot be created ex nihilo.

You cannot write for effect. Every writer wants to create certain effect in his/her readers, but we don't write effects--or affects either. We write words. In sentences. We write words that we mean, conveying the information you want to convey. If you are not writing words, but writing for an effect, with the eye to the emotional response you want your reader (hearers) to have, you will go wrong, and create nothing that makes sense nor moves anyone.

Instead, remember that a writer writes words. That's the key to good writing. Write what you want to say, using words. Write what you are thinking. Don't try to be polished and nuanced and subtle. If you are polished and nuanced in your thinking, then it will come out on the paper. If you're not, don't pretend to be. Just write. If you attempt to write in a way that your brain doesn't work, what will show up on your paper will be meandering and vague. It is inevitable: what is in your brain will show up on paper, in some form. If you're unclear about the point you are making, your unclarity will be seen by all. If you're certain about what you want to write, then your writing will be uncertain. But if it's the case that you're not sure which approach would be best, that is, what sort of argument to make, how to introduce this topic which builds to that topic, what kind of rhetorical outline or composition to use, the best approach is to simply pick one and write. If it's the wrong approach or outline, then you'll know when you edit it.

If you're writing because you want the reader to feel the way you feel, then you must feel, and write what you feel and explain why. Know what you want to say, then write it down. It works.


  1. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    There were so many times when I would be in the writing center at OU and after talking to people suddenly stop them and say, "Type that, type what you just said."

    I think part of the problem is that in today's culture we tend to think of writing as an exercise designed to either impress another - where we struggle to meet their expectations- or where we are just trying to "express ourselves" - which is really focused on the self and fundamentally isn't communication.

    Communication is focused on conveying an idea to another. Not impressing them. Not pleasing them. Not empowering yourself by your bold stance. It is being clear and to the point.

    This is especially rough for pastors because we quite often feel pressure to live up to expectations - to fit the preacher mold. I'm not. I'm not going to sound like any other preacher - cause I'm not them, I'm me. Now listen - do you hear Christ and Him Crucified? Then this voice has done its job - let it be content to simply be a voice.