On Writing, Part 3
What are the dangers and benefits of being a published author?
To be honest, there are many, in both directions.
The benefits include: getting your work out there to a wider audience, opportunities to meet other authors, chances to speak on your book, more exposure for your church, a much easier road to publishing again. I’m not going to lie, Why We’re Not Emergent has allowed me to meet a lot of great people and do some pretty cool things.
But there are also dangers. Pride is always a struggle (“Look, my book at Barnes and Noble!”). Worry can be too (“What are people saying about me and my precious book?”). Self-absorption is another pitfall (“What’s my Amazon ranking?” “Did uber-blogger like my book?”). So is discontentment (“Why don’t my books sell as much as that drivel?”). And greed (“Let’s see, if I can do a book next year and this one this year sells this many copies…”). And self-promotion (“Hi nice to meet you; could you mention my book to all your friends?”)
Perhaps the biggest danger is forgetting that even if some things in life change after publishing a book (and they may not) you are still the same person. That’s the weirdest thing about being an author. People attach magical significance to publishing. But you are the same person saying the same things, go through the same struggles, but now you have a book. All of sudden your publishers wants you to do radio interviews (believe me, the thrill has less shelf life than Egg Nog). Churches come out of the woodwork and want you to speak at their youth retreat. Other authors are willing to talk to you. It’s all very strange. And it can all be fine or even positive, so long as you remember who you really are. You are still a floundering husband and an ok pastor. Most importantly, your most essential identity is still as a justified sinner.
How can I become a better writer?
The are two indispensable requirements for improving as a writer: reading and writing. Read often. Read broadly. Read what you like. Read outside your discipline. Read things over your head. Above all, read good writing. You will instinctively pick up good habits.
And of course, you can’t be a good writer unless you write. I enjoy writing. Many authors, I’ve learned, don’t. But I do (and not just in the “I’m glad to have run” way). I like the craft of it, the organization, the challenge, even the editing.
I always hoped I would have the opportunity to write for others. The best thing you can do if you want to write for others is to start now. Don’t worry about getting published. Work hard to write a good Christmas letter (most of them are tedious and too long). Write stories for your kids. Craft a poem for your spouse. One pastor gave me a great piece of advice as I started ministry: write a monthly newsletter. The practice, he said, would be good for me. I would have a chance to hone my craft and teach my people at the same time.
What else? Practice writing with a word limit. Any Protestant pastor worth his covenant salt can write about justification, but try doing it in 1000 words or 200 words. The biggest complaint I get about my blog (besides not having enough Monday Morning Humor) is that my posts are too long. Point well taken.
Read your writing aloud. It will help you hear what makes sense and what doesn’t. Writing forces you to think clearly. That’s why it is so difficult. If you can’t write it clearly, you probably haven’t thought it clearly yet.
Read books on writing, like Writing Tools which I’ll highlight tomorrow.
Ask for feedback, honest feedback from a friend who isn’t afraid to speak the truth in love.
Learn that virtually all good writing is actually good rewriting. Get your thoughts down on paper the first time around, then go back, cut and revise.
Above all, have something true to say and say it in an interesting way. People read Piper because he says old things in fresh ways. He’s Jonathan Edwards mingled with poetry fueled by passion. People read Keller because his teaching on idolatry goes deeper than “whatever you put before God is an idol.” He twists the diamond and shows you a facet you haven’t seen. People read Carson because he is a good scholar who writes clearly and with feeling. People read Carl Trueman and Doug Wilson because they are incapable of being dull. And I’m not just thinking in our little circles. The point is that bad Christian writing is usually bad because it is derivative and workmanlike. No new insights. No panache. There’s a reason people still read G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, a reason people took to J.I. Packer and many people read N.T. Wright. And it’s not the initialized names (not just). It’s the fact that they write about serious matters in an accessible way with a good turn of the phrase.