A Guide to Good Writing for Those Who Can't Write Good
One of the characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Home describes preaching as, “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.” I’ve often considered this a fitting description for Christian writing. Faithful Christian writers apply the balm of God’s truth to hurting, lost, and confused people. They aren’t content to merely state facts, but to thoughtfully show their readers why the truth matters. This article, originally given as a talk, will hopefully go some way towards helping you to do that in your own writing.
Many Christians desire to write. This may be because they themselves benefited from the work of other Christians; or because like God’s prophet they feel as though they’ve got fire shut up in their bones (Jeremiah 20:9). Yet writing doesn’t come naturally to all of us.
So where do I start? Do I need to practice? Can I improve? How will I know if I’m on the right track? In an attempt to answer some of these questions and encourage Christian writers, under the three headings below I offer some general principles for growing as a writer, followed by some specific tools involved in a single piece of writing, before concluding with an exhortation to practice your writing in community.
1. General Principles
In the next section we will consider the specifics of individual written pieces, from introductions to conclusions, and a few things in between. In this first section, however, I want to suggest a few foundational practices that will promote better writing.
You’ll be hard pressed to find great writers who aren’t prolific readers. If it’s true that bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33), then continual reading cultivates better writing. Here I don’t necessarily mean reading about writing, but reading good writing. From philosophy to fiction, your writing will improve with wider reading of good books.
1.2 Engage with What You Read
An excellent way to work on your own writing is by interacting with the writing of others. Reflect and riff on what you read. Paraphrase another writer’s argument. Summarise their works. Then engage with them in your own writing.
After church one Sunday a member of our congregation joked that every second or third article I post is about Chuck Palahniuk’s famous novel, Fight Club. While it was an exaggeration, he’d identified my commitment to conversing in writing with what I read.
Because few of us will be employed to write, we need to abandon the idea that writing demands uninterrupted, hourlong stretches at your keyboard. That picture is unrealistic and unhelpful. So set aside 15 minutes a day to write. Try to get an hour or two in over the weekend. Create a routine or rhythm for regular writing—even in small pockets of time—and you’ll quickly realise that writing is accumulative.
Sometimes you’ll use these writing blocks to revise or edit. At other times you’ll generate new content or engage with someone else’s writing. The point is simply that you commit to the regular practice of writing. Make writing a disciplined habit. One of my Systematics lecturers, Dr Ben Dean, encouraged us with some maths. If you write just 200 words a day, which is roughly two paragraphs, you will end up with 5000 words in a month.
1.4 Share Your Writing
This doesn’t mean you have to publish online. Though that is an option in this day and age. Rather, to improve in your writing you need to invite critical feedback from others. That may take the form of a writers’ workshop. You could even share your writing with a few friends over email and ask them to make comments. Offer up your work to the eyes of others so that you can learn how to make it better.
1.5 Listen with Humility to Feedback
Linked with the previous principle, you need to learn how to take criticism. In an outstanding essay on studying, Simone Weil warns against the temptation, “to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise if it is bad, and to hide it forthwith.” Don’t ignore feedback. Don’t proudly assuming you know better than your reader or editor. Rather, Weil continues, “take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly,” where your writing isn’t good enough, so that you can “get down to the origin of each fault.”
2. Basic Building Blocks
Adapting a point made by C. S. Lewis, in my talk I suggested that writing is similar to dancing. In order to learn how to dance you must master basic steps or movements as well as counting. Likewise, when we’re learning how to write—or to improve our writing—we must master the basics, until we’re doing them without consciously thinking about them. Below I offer six of these, which I’m sure you can deduce aren’t exhaustive. But in my experience as an editor these are some of the most fundamental and overlooked aspects of good writing.
Though the word thesis can refer to a research paper or even a PhD, it can also describe the controlling idea, argument, or primary purpose of a piece of writing. Good writing needs a thesis. This does’t mean that it contains a singular idea, but rather that all the arguments and observations serve the thesis—the purpose of the article.
Having a thesis enables you to evaluate your own work: does this paragraph or argument further my thesis? How does the introduction set up the main idea? In my conclusion do I introduce new ideas or return to the purpose of the piece? A thesis gives your article and all its parts shape as well as direction. If you don’t know what you’re writing about you’ll write about everything and anything.
Putting together an outline is like providing yourself with a map. Once you’ve got a thesis you can layout the parts of the article, asking yourself how they develop the main thrust and whether they fit together. This way you can know where you’re going, anticipating later points and tying the paragraphs together. An outline will usually also indicate where you can insert headings or subheadings.
Your introduction should alert your readers to the thesis while also setting the course of the writing to follow. Sometimes it’s also helpful to include an abbreviated outline for your reader—especially in the case of longer articles.
Your introduction doesn’t have to blandly state your thesis; for example, “Under the three headings below I offer some practical tips on ‘how to write.’” But the introduction must offer your reader a clear path into the rest of your article. This can be done by telling a story or personal anecdote, asking questions, presenting a problem, or even making a simple observation. Simultaneously your first few paragraphs should seek to interest your reader and introduce your thesis. This can be done many ways.
Good writing begins and ends well. Just as introductions set up and provide a pathway in for your reader, conclusions are a way to return to your thesis and tie all all the parts together. Furthermore, if someone has read as far as your conclusion then you’ve won them over, or at the very least you have their attention. Therefore it’s a great place to explore implications and responses—takeaways. Good conclusions call for action and act to put the whole piece together.
2.5 Linking the Parts
You need to break up your writing into paragraphs, limiting the argument or idea of each as narrow as possible and at the same time asking how it develops your thesis. But your writing cannot be a collection of tight paragraphs that don’t fit together or flow.
Good writing takes the reader by the hand, so to speak. It leads them from introduction, through the paragraphs, and finally to the conclusion. Thus you must endeavour to link the parts of your article to each other. Why does this paragraph come next? How does this subsection set up the following? Of course, both your outline and thesis are fundamental to tying each part of the article into a cohesive whole.
2.6 Integrating Quotes
Finally, though there are other basic tools to learn, the deliberate integration of quotes is crucial. Most Christian articles will draw on Bible passages, as well as quotes from other writers. Not integrating quotes makes for jarring reading, with abrupt shifts. So you must work hard at integrating the words of others into your own writing. This will take many forms, and sometimes more than one of the following: setting up a quote; summarising them; and paraphrasing quotes. Help your reader understand why you’ve used the quote.
3. Write in Community
In Charitable Writing, Beitler and Gibson write, “Humility is the virtue that allows us to see not only our finitude and fallenness but also the goods of our communities. It allows us to recognise that we don’t have all the answers…The humble person, dependence on others is not an embarrassment but a potential source of mutual benefit. Humility, in short, makes us teachable.”
This teachable humility isn’t only the mark of Christian faith but invaluable for good writing. All of us need “the goods of our communities” if we’re to become better writers. In my experience there at least three kinds of people you need.
These are people—from willing friends and family, to research supervisors and regular readers—who will give critical feedback on your writing. From the level of grammar to overall argument, they will point out where your article is weak, unclear, and incorrect, suggesting improvements and changes to strengthen an individual piece.
This second group are instructors in the craft of writing. Typically they are writers themselves who’ve also considered writing as a discipline that can be learnt. The majority of this article fits into this category, as it aims to teach better writing. Obviously, there’s much more to be said; more to be learnt. So find instructors for the task of writing.
Finally, to be a good writer you need to observe better writers. These needn’t be theologians or pastors, but simply others who’re further down the track in terms of writing. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to read across genres and categories, whether that’s philosophy or fiction. Spend time with the works of writers who’ve honed their craft. Learn from them.
Make Progress by Writing
Let me conclude by taking two quotes out of context and then bringing them together. In 1 Timothy 4:15 Paul writes, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” A few centuries later, in his Retractions, Augustine says, “I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress—by writing.” Now, Paul was talking about Christian leadership; Augustine was referring to theological development. Progress comes through action. If you desire to make progress in your writing you will only ever do so by practising it.