Writing

 

Feb

05

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Communicating Clearly and Creatively

6fdeb40bc4d50a7f023567.L._V161136453_SX200_Stephen Altrogge’s latest book, Untamable God: Encountering the One Who Is Bigger, Better, and More Dangerous Than You Could Possibly Imagine, came out last month. Recently, Stephen and I had a conversation about how to grow in our ability to communicate clearly and creativity.

Stephen: First off, Trevin, do you think Christian writers have a responsibility to write well? Even more than that, should Christian teachers and authors be satisfied with merely communicating truth?

I think most pastors and authors think primarily in terms of communicating information clearly, rather than clearly and with beauty.

Trevin: If we believe that everything we do should be to the glory of God, then of course, someone who takes on the task of writing as a vocation ought to assume the responsibility of doing so with excellence.

You could ask this of any vocation. Do Christian construction workers have a responsibility to do an excellent job? Do Christian servers at a restaurant have a responsibility to take good care of their guests? The list goes on. When a Christian sits down to write, either with a pen in hand or a keyboard beneath our fingers, he or she should work with excellence.

To the second part, clarity is beautiful in and of itself, but clarity isn’t necessarily compelling. I fear that some pastors mimic the kind of speaker who is all flash and no substance, while other pastors mimic the kind of speaker who is substantive but boring.

The first kind of pastor gives too much attention to delivery and not enough to the content. The second kind of pastor thinks his job is done when the right information is transmitted.

We need a balanced approach that takes into consideration the beauty of truth. We’re not making truth beautiful; we are drawing out the beauty that is inherent in God’s truth.

To miss the truth portion is to give people cotton candy. To miss the beauty portion is to give people raw meat and potatoes.

What has helped you, Stephen, grow in your ability to write well?

Stephen: There is no secret formula to good writing. I’ve learned to write well by laying down a lot of real ink and digital ink.

I’ve written a boatload of blog posts – some decent, some mediocre, some just plain awful. I’ve written a number of books. I’ve written articles and tweets and Facebook updates.

Writing is a craft, and like any craft, I’ve gotten better with practice. It’s taken me ten years and thousands of words to to find my “voice.”

When I first started writing, I wanted to be John Piper. But, as most people quickly realize, I’m not in the same ballpark as John Piper. I’ve got my own style and favorite words and writing techniques.

I think I’ve finally learned how to craft a sentence in way that is both true and attractive. Scripture talks repeatedly about the need for diligence and hard work, and these truths apply to writing as much as any other area of life.

I’ve also learned how to write by reading great writers, like Anne Lamott, Stephen King, John Piper, and N.D. Wilson.

What authors have influenced you most as a writer?

Trevin: I love the wit of G. K. Chesterton and the clarity of C. S. Lewis.

I enjoy watching N. T. Wright pen tomes from the ivory tower of academia and simultaneously provide rich devotional material for people without a seminary education. N.D. Wilson is another favorite.

When it comes to ancient authors, I find the sermons of Chrysostom and the confessions of Augustine to be full of good stuff.

Are there any books on writing that you’ve found helpful? Or do you mainly encourage people to read good authors as the best way to improve in writing?

Stephen: There are approximately 84 bajillion books on writing, and, frankly, most of them are pretty bad. I usually recommend that people read four books on writing:

  1. On Writing by Stephen King
  2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  3. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  4. Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson

The reality is, most of us would rather read about writing than actually sit down and do the work of writing. My main encouragement to people would be to read these four books, read a ton of other books, and write a ton of stuff.

Take a lot in, put a lot out, throw a lot away, and repeat.

What kinds of things keep you from writing?

Trevin: Not much keeps me from writing. I don’t write as much as I read, but I always seem to find time for both.

If I go more than five or six days without writing something, my mind begins to flow with ideas, until eventually, I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t get it out somewhere.

Normal constraints of time, seasons of life, responsibilities at home with family – all these things can keep me from writing. But if you’re passionate about ideas, you’ll find time somewhere in the midst of a busy schedule to make it work.

How are you implementing what you’ve learned about writing in your new book?

Stephen: Writing Christian non-fiction can be tricky when it comes to creativity. The challenge every Christian author faces is trying to communicate well-worn truths in ways that are fresh, arresting, and inspiring, all without verging into heresy (see Rob Bell).

In Untamable God, I made a concerted effort to not just communicate biblical truth, but to communicate the truth in ways that grip the imagination and capture the heart (wow, that sounds really epic).

I also ventured into areas many “inspirational” books tend to avoid, like the fact that throughout Scripture there are numerous examples of God killing people who violate his holiness.

You recently wrote a novel. How was writing a novel different from writing standard Christian non-fiction?

Trevin: Clear Winter Nights is a bit of a hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. It’s a story, but there’s an expressed didactic purpose behind it and the characters’ conversations.

I suppose the biggest difference for me was beginning to realize just how much harder fiction is. Every decision you make regarding a character affects other characters and the story. I didn’t anticipate the level of complexity in doing fiction.

What are some ways you deliberately sought to grip the imagination in Untamable God?

Stephen: I sought to capture the imagination in several different ways. First, I deliberately tried to employ provocative language at points.

Now, I should say, this can be a dangerous tactic if a writer is not careful. In order to stay out of trouble, I only used the provocative language that scripture uses.

For example, in Ezekiel, God repeatedly describes Israel as being a “whore” because of their idolatry. I used the same language in describing our unregenerate state.

Second, I wrote in a conversational, informal tone. It’s difficult for the imagination to engage with dense, academic language. There is most certainly a place for dense language, but I wanted to write in a more conversational, engaging tone.

Finally, I tried to use humor where appropriate. I love humor. When used well, it provides a welcome relief from the constant intensity that some writers use. It also keeps the reader engaged.

Trevin: Thanks for spending some time talking about writing, communicating, and the power of words. Readers, you can check out Stephen’s blog - The Blazing Center - and his book, Untamable God.

 
 

Oct

08

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

4 Books for Would-Be Writers

As a curriculum editor, author and blogger, I often get asked by friends and coworkers for books and resources that can help them improve their writing and editing skills. Here’s what I usually tell them:

Write better by writing.

The first thing you can do to better your writing skills would be to simply write – repeatedly. Write, edit and continue to do so even when you do not feel like it.

Write better by reading.

The second bit of advice I would give is to read well and read often. You will improve when you surround yourself with good books.

Write better by training.

There are dozens of practical books to help you improve your skills. I recommend the four below. Over the years, I’ve found I keep going back to them for assistance.

Words Fail Me:
What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing

Patricia T. O’Conner

This little book on writing never fails to reenergize my devotion to the craft. Since receiving it as a gift in 2001, I read it at least once a year.

Many books on writing can become tedious and even boring. Going through style suggestions and a list of grammar rules can overwhelm and discourage even the most passionate writer.

O’Conner’s winsome work gives both positive and negative examples of the discussion topics and brings joy to the process.

Writing Tools:
50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

Roy Peter Clark

While Clark’s work is not as much fun as Words Fail Me, it still a great resource. This is the kind of book you will want to work through slowly, perhaps one chapter a day for a couple months. To fly through it misses the point. It’s designed to help you get better at the craft by improving one strategy at a time.

Writing Tools seeks to provide you with the tools you need, ranging from the simplest to the most complex, to help you become a better writer. Clark provides a workshop to help you incorporate the lessons taught in each chapter.

How to Write A Sentence:
And How to Read One

Stanley Fish

To put it simply, this is a book that ignites your love for words. Fish is good at drawing out the beauty of the written word, showing you what works and why.

In reviewing Fish’s book for TGC, English professor Louis Markos said Fish is someone who “really believes that all of us can learn to write good sentences.” Markos wrote,

“By eschewing both charts and technical language in favor of a strictly narrative approach, Fish opens up for the common reader the beauty and wonder of that tight little microcosm we call the sentence.”

Style:
Toward Clarity and Grace

Joseph M. Williams

While this book applies more to academic writing, I still find it helpful for anyone who wants to write better. Williams’ goal is to encourage writers to be more clear in their presentations of ideas. What writer doesn’t benefit from help in this area?

In a previous post, I drew out four lessons from Style:

“Williams wants to see academic writing that is clear and elegant, where the style serves to enhance the presentation instead of distract from it. ‘Whatever else a well-educated person can do,’ he writes, ‘that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that.’”

Have you read any of these? How did they help you? Are there any other books or resources that you would recommend to someone wishing to improve their writing?

 
 

May

13

2013

Trevin Wax|3:54 am CT

Why Writing Fiction Was Harder Than I Thought

When I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, I thought storytelling would be a refreshing change of pace. In many ways, it was.

I felt like I was going back to my roots – to the kid in junior high writing stories and sharing them with his friends in class. For years, I competed in creative writing competitions and enjoyed creating characters and the adventures that test and grow them. Moving forward with fiction was like going back. I relished the idea.

Then the writing process began…

I started Clear Winter Nights with the hope of teaching through story. My goal was to communicate biblical truth through an intriguing storyline and memorable characters. In this way, the book would include both fiction elements (a story and dialogue) and non-fiction elements (theological discussion and logical reasoning).

Sounds simple enough, right? I thought I’d knock out the project in the amount of time it took to write my other books. Little did I know, I was in for a rude awakening.

Here are two reasons why writing fiction turned out to be harder than I expected:

1. A Lengthier and More Robust Editorial Review

Four major publishing houses liked my initial proposal and sample chapters enough to make an offer. I chose Multnomah because, in early conversations, I sensed they would be heavily involved in the editorial process. They didn’t let me down. For almost a year, I received feedback from great fiction editors, readers, writers, and theologically savvy types who love the idea of a non-fiction writer branching out into new territory.

For a non-fiction book, the editorial stage is simple. You send the manuscript to trusted friends and advisors who then offer their feedback.

Did you mean to say this? I think you’re wrong.

Maybe if you said this in a different way, you can avoid a potential area of confusion.

I love this idea, but I think you could communicate it better if you did it this way…

Editorial comments for a Christian Living title focus on the strength of your argument and the persuasiveness of your presentation.

Fiction, on the other hand, adds another layer of complexity to the editorial process. People respond differently to characters and stories than they do to an outline that organizes truth in a linear fashion.

Initial impressions are much more subjective for a fiction book than for non-fiction. Second, third, and fourth drafts lead you to do more than tweak a sentence here or there. Sometimes, you’ve got to go back to the keyboard and scrap entire scenes, rearrange material, and introduce new people. Then there are the times you have to trust your instincts and ignore all the other voices.

2. The Complexity of Character Development

The initial idea for Clear Winter Nights was to put forth traditional Christian teaching in a compelling story, to make good points through characters and fiction. In other words, though I would never have articulated it this way, I viewed the story as the shell around the didactic, non-fiction elements at the center. The point was the truth; the vehicle was the story.

That approach didn’t last long.

Once I began to proceed with a didactic purpose, I found myself opposed at every point by my characters themselves. They seemed to rise up in defiance of my predetermined outline. They broke out of the constraints I had set for them. They resisted any attempt to be forced into conversations that didn’t fit their personalities.

As the storytelling process unfolded, some of my favorite scenes and conversations landed on the cutting room floor. Truths and arguments I had originally intended to express through these characters didn’t fit their personalities. The characters outgrew my initial vision, leading to more and more revisions of the story and dialogue. When my familiarity with the story kept me from seeing how the characters had grown, my editors stepped in to point out the discrepancies.

As an author, I could have chosen to ramrod my agenda through the book and cause Chris and Gil to say and do whatever I wanted. But in the end, I wanted the conversations to serve the characters, not vice versa. The more you come to know the characters you create, the less likely you are to make them nothing more than an agent of your own bidding.

I realize how confusing this must sound to those who haven’t written fiction. Are you saying, Trevin, that you don’t have final say-so over what your characters say and do? Not at all. I like how it all turned out. It’s just that, as you develop characters, you find their individuality leads to certain constraints and choices that differ from the initial expectations you had when you began the story.

Conclusion

I could continue listing reasons why writing fiction was harder than I thought. Several reasons deal with being aware of the basics of storytelling. I’ve already written about one of the most important discoveries here – the Point of View, so I won’t belabor the point.

In the end, Clear Winter Nights has been a labor of love and learning. Love for the characters and the truth they discuss, and learning for me as an author as I’ve been working to get better at a craft I neglected for too long.

 
 

Feb

18

2013

Trevin Wax|3:09 am CT

Fiction-Writing Basics #1: Determine the Point of View

Last month, I announced my next writing project will be fiction. The book will be published by Waterbrook Multnomah (Random House) this fall.

Writing fiction has proved to be a much more difficult experience than writing non-fiction. I had no idea how many layers and levels of re-writes and edits a short novel would require. Neither did I begin with a full understanding of the techniques for writing fiction.

Maybe you’re like me. You like reading novels, and you have thought about writing one of your own.

As you get started on your book, you’ll instinctively sense that some things work and don’t work. But you won’t know why. At least, that was the case for me. I knew something was wrong with a section here or there, but in order to pinpoint the issue, I needed to brush up on some fiction-writing techniques.

In the next few weeks, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned during this process.

The Crucial “Point of View”

Today, we will look at a crucial element of fiction-writing: the “point of view” for a specific scene.

At first glance, you may think I’m referring to the perspective of the author, the belief systems authors put forth in their work. That is not what fiction editors and writers mean by “point of view.” Instead, POV refers to the scene at hand and the character through whom we are experiencing the moment.

Think of it like a movie, where you place a camera somewhere in the room. From what perspective will the scene’s action be shown?

Different Points of View

There are various ways of determining the point of view for a scene, but they can be summed up in three basic approaches.

1. Omniscient

The omniscient approach operates within the point of view of the narrator. The video camera sees everything. By taking the identity of the “omniscient narrator,” you can write about things in a scene that your main characters are completely unaware of. You take in the whole scene with a God-like perspective.

Many writers in the past have utilized the omniscient point of view in their fiction. Joyce Carol Oates, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who actually paused the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to preach to her readers!) told their stories from the narrator’s perspective.

The upside to using the omniscient point of view is that you gain additional perspective on the scene. You are not “trapped” in anyone’s head  or limited by the horizon of any of your characters.

The downside is a loss of intimacy. Your reader takes in the scene, but it’s harder to get to know the people present. What you gain in information, you lose in personal touch.

2. First-Person

The first person approach is written from the perspective of the main character. The video camera is built into the glasses of the main character, so that the narrator and the main character are the same person. The reader experiences everything in the book from the perspective of the main speaker.

Marilynne Robinson used this technique to stunning effect in Gilead, a book written from the perspective of a dying pastor. She opens the book this way:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

The upside to using the “I” point of view is that your reader gets to know the main character by seeing everything through his or her eyes. When the main character is interesting, readers will keep turning the pages.

The downside to writing fiction in first person is that many characters are not strong enough to carry the whole narrative. Readers begin to feel trapped inside the head of one person. In their helpful book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King explain:

“What you gain in intimacy with the first person, you lose in perspective. You can’t know or write about anything your main character couldn’t know, which means you have to have your main character on the spot whenever you want to write an immediate scene. This can limit your plot-development possibilities.”

3. Third-Person

The third-person approach chooses a central character for each scene and envisions the action through the “point of view” of that character. Whenever you need to shift to another character’s point of view, you can insert a linespace and start a new scene from the perspective of the other person in the scene.

It’s safe to say that most fiction books today use this approach. It allows the writer to provide perspective beyond the eyes of one character, while at the same time fostering a certain amount of intimacy by bringing us into the thoughts of the main characters.

An Example

Because I’m new at writing fiction, I chose the third person approach for my book. I designed each chapter as a scene, and then I determined where the video camera would be, (which character’s point of view would dominate the scene).

As an example, an early scene in my upcoming book features three men from three different generations discussing the role of passion and balance in life and theology. The dialogue is the dialogue. It’s not going to change depending on point of view.

But who is the character through whom I want the reader to experience this scene?

- Will it be the twenty-something college graduate undergoing a crisis of faith? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a guy who feels a little out-of-place, like he’s “in over his head” in this conversation because of his youth and inexperience.)

- Will it be the middle-aged lawyer who directs the choir at church? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is a close friend to the elderly man, and who is genuinely curious about the young guy in the room.)

- Will it be the homebound retired pastor? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is accustomed to passionate conversation and who seeks to make the young guy feel at ease.)

The way you determine which point of view to use is by figuring out whose inner thoughts are most important for this scene.

  • Who does the reader need to get to know here?
  • Whose emotions will be most intense, most vulnerable?
  • Whose perspective will shine the most light on the POV character as well as the other people in the scene?

Determining the point of view for a character is one of the basic lessons I learned in writing fiction. Before you start on your own novel, read a few fiction books and notice how the authors handle the POV.

 
 

Jan

09

2013

Trevin Wax|3:15 am CT

Why I Am Writing a Fiction Book

For a few years now, I’ve been beating the drum about the need for artistic, beautiful portrayals of truth. We need to draw out the inherent beauty of truth whenever we proclaim it, whether it’s in our sermons, our non-fiction books, or blog posts.

Likewise, I’ve expressed concern about those of us in conservative Christian circles who tend to pick apart works of art without offering something better. We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack, but we can’t come up with a better story. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium. The same is true of movies, music, spoken word videos, and other forms of art.

Late last year, a sense of dissatisfaction stirred up in me. I wondered if perhaps I was doing the very thing I despise: critiquing without creating. Only this time, I was critiquing the other critics.

So, I began to pray about writing a fictional story, something that would put forward traditional Christian theology within a compelling narrative.

Back to Fiction

I quickly discovered my story-telling skills were dormant. The last piece of fiction I had written was a Narnia-like drama for a student ministry in 2004. As a kid, I loved to write stories. But somewhere along the way, I switched to non-fiction, started blogging, and aside from a parable here and there, I stayed firmly in the non-fiction camp.

But my love for reading fiction never went away. Neither did my desire to create good fiction of my own.

In early 2012, I got to work on a fiction proposal. I developed a story centered on two characters who would dialogue about matters of life and faith. I wrote a third of the book during the winter months and then finished a full draft by late spring.

Looking for a Publisher

Next, it was time to see if there was any merit to the proposal. That meant looking for a publisher.

Shopping a fiction manuscript turned out to be the most nerve-wracking experience of my writing life so far. In the case of my other books, the publishers approached me. This time, I was knocking on the door with something outside the box, something I’d not tried or succeeded at before.

Never had I felt so vulnerable about work I was doing. An artist often goes back and forth between thinking his or her creation is beautiful or bad. I leaned to the “bad” side in my thinking, a lot. I didn’t have confidence that this was going to go anywhere. Maybe I’d just written a book that would sit on my digital shelf for the rest of my life.

Then again, I took comfort in knowing that, regardless of the outcome, I could one day look back and say, “At least I gave it a shot!” As Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And surely Calvin Miller was right: “We should not wait until we are sure of our art, or we will never use it to praise God at all. ”

Thankfully, four publishers saw the potential of the book and offered to publish it. I was surprised (and relieved).

Where I Am Now

This month, the book is in the final stages of editing. I asked the publisher to put accomplished fiction and non-fiction editors on this work, to help me enhance the book’s appeal, its reasoning, and its narrative flow. It’s been neat to see the book get better at each stage in the process.

In the next few months, I’ll write more about this book and my hopes for it. I’ll also blog about some of the things I’ve learned along the way. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your prayers as I finish it up.

 
 

Dec

05

2012

Trevin Wax|3:39 am CT

Research and Respect: 3 Things to Remember as You Study

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams (University of Chicago Press, 2008) contains a wealth of information for scholars seeking to do their research with excellence. The writers offer practical suggestions on how to find a topic, start a draft, support one’s claims, and maintain the interest of the reader.

Due to its informative scope and instructional nature, this book is difficult to summarize succinctly, much less interact with at a personal level. But most of the authors’ advice can be summed up in three simple principles that guide the researcher’s task. Though research is often done in solitude, the process itself inevitably involves a three-way conversation between the researcher, the researcher’s colleagues, and the researcher’s readers.

In reviewing The Craft of Research, I will highlight a few suggestions under the general principles of respecting your readers, respecting your fellow researchers, and respecting your own role and purpose during the process.

1. Respect Your Readers

A good researcher always keeps the reader in mind. Research papers are more than just requirements for a degree; we write them as a service to our readers.

To respect your readers, you must first know who they are. As a researcher, you need a general idea of who will pick up your paper and consider its claims.

“Just as we judge a writer as we read, so a writer must judge his readers, but before he writes,” the authors say (17).

It is important to not presume that your reader will care about your research, even if the readers you envision would be naturally interested in the subject. Instead, good researchers make plain the reasons why a reader ought to care. We go about the task with the question of “So what?” always in the back of our mind (47). Therefore:

“The first question an experienced researcher should ask about a problem is not Can I solve it? but Will readers think it should be?” (64).

As important as the “So What?” question is, we must go beyond providing for our readers an answer without regard to form. Respecting the reader means we will make the delivery of the answer as interesting as possible.

The introduction of the paper should seize the attention of the reader by promising an answer to a pressing problem. The body of the paper should be written with the reader’s interest in view. Better for our readers to come to the end of our work and disagree with our conclusions than to never reach the end due to loss of interest (232).

It is true that the crafting of research can be tedious at times, but our writing need not be. “Our dense writing indicates not the irreducible difficulty of a work of genius,” write Booth, Colomb, and Williams, “but the sloppy thinking of a writer indifferent to his readers” (250).

Though keeping the reader in mind may seem like an undue burden for researchers, this practice actually helps us accomplish our work more effectively. Envisioning our reader reminds us that the goal of our work is to serve others.

Furthermore, the discipline of considering our readers helps us become more skilled at the art of conversation. “When you write for others, you demand more of yourself than when you write for yourself alone,” the authors say (13). By keeping others in mind, our task is given proper shape. In every report, we seek to “make a claim, back it with reasons, support them with evidence, acknowledge and respond to other views, and sometimes explain your principles of reasoning” (108).

Showing deference to our readers will lead us to make concessions at times and thereby legitimize others’ views (145). Too often, we put forth a claim with “arrogant certainty” and unwittingly undercut our own argument (127). Instead, we should recognize that our relationship with the reader provides a challenge to reader and researcher alike. We are involved in a give-and-take relationship, an interaction that strengthens our argumentation.

To challenge the reader, we must explain the significance of the proposal and consider how many beliefs the reader will need to change, should our proposal be convincing (124). In being challenged by our readers, we must put ourselves in their shoes and put our argument through their wringer, fully anticipating and answering the major objections they might raise (142). 

2. Respect Your Fellow Researchers

A second principle that guides the craft of research is respect for one’s fellow researchers, the scholars who have laid a foundation for our research as well as contemporary scholars who are interested in similar subjects. Research is a community project.

“The knowledge we all rely on depends on the quality of research that supports it and the accuracy of its reporting” (4).

Erecting a shoddy frame upon a solid foundation is disrespectful to the builders who have gone before us. For this reason, we should pay careful attention to the facts employed to back up our claims. Never should we shape the facts or manipulate their presentation in a way that tilts the force of an argument in our favor (135).

A good way to respect fellow researchers is to “read your argument as someone who has a stake in a different outcome – who wants you to be wrong” (140). In interacting with scholars who disagree, it is important to read charitably and not “against the grain.” Some researchers latch on to certain qualifications or concessions that are admittedly not central to an author’s argument in order to claim the author’s work as additional support (98). This kind of research disrespects the reader and fellow researcher alike.

One of the primary ways we can respect fellow researchers is through the careful quotation of sources. As a rule of thumb, we should summarize when all we need is the point of the passage, paraphrase when we can be clearer than the original, and record exact quotations when they come from an authority that adds weight to our claim (97). Likewise, we should cite sources as a way of honoring fellow scholars “by acknowledging your intellectual debts” (196).

3. Respect Yourself and Your Purpose.

The Craft of Research is aptly titled. This kind of work is indeed a craft, which means that as researchers, we can and should seek to improve our skills. It is important to respect our own abilities and keep the purpose of research at the forefront of our minds.

Booth, Colomb, and Williams advise the researcher to write a little bit every day and do what is necessary to improve one’s critical thinking skills (33). As we go about our work, we must respect the purpose of research enough to submit to evidence even when it contradicts our intended and anticipated answer. Though it may be easy to only read sources in a way that affirms our point of view, we must remain open to research that challenges our weak points (84). This is, after all, the point of our work: to “gather information to answer a question that solves a problem” (10).

As we begin the research process, we should consider whether the problem under consideration is practical or conceptual. A practical problem will be resolved by recommending a course of action. A conceptual problem will be resolved by adding to our present understanding. For this reason, the answer to a practical problem is called “applied research” while the answer to a conceptual problem is called “pure research” (53).

In respecting the purpose for our work, we must prioritize primary sources, the “raw data” most relevant to the topic at hand. Secondary sources utilize primary data, while tertiary sources summarize the results of secondary sources for general readers. All three kinds of sources can be helpful, but the bulk of our time should be spent with primary sources. The Internet can be a terrific place to discover primary source materials, but ought to be regarded with suspicion when it comes to secondary and tertiary sources (77-80).

One of the most important ways to respect yourself during the research process is to remember that your views on the subject are important. Some researchers will throw together a number of scholarly opinions on a given subject without ever making their own views known.

Booth, Colomb, and Williams issue a good reminder, that “readers want your analysis, not a summary of your sources” (178). The purpose for your research is to put forth your own point of view. After all, what is the point of writing unless you believe your claims to be true and your argument to be sound enough to change others’ opinions on the matter (106)? Whenever we forget the purpose of our writing, our proposal loses relevance and becomes less convincing.

Conclusion

The Craft of Research is full of practical advice for those who want to engage in the research process carefully, effectively, and persuasively. Following the instructions in this book will enable researchers to avoid common pitfalls while doing research. Our work ought to be characterized by respect and consideration: for our readers, for our fellow researchers, and for ourselves.

 
 

Oct

16

2012

Trevin Wax|3:50 am CT

4 Ways to Write with Style and Grace

If the goal of the intellectual life is the passionate pursuit of truth, then a scholar’s writing ought to make the record of discovery as interesting as the journey itself.

Unfortunately, many scholars desire the image of intellectuality more than the furthering of knowledge, and the result is a sterile, stuffy style of writing that suppresses the excitement of discovering truth for oneself as well as the joy of commending that truth to others.

A writer who believes that ideas matter more than impressions ought to do everything in his or her power to make the communication of ideas clear, cohesive, and compelling. Though we should not bow to unwarranted pressure to “spice up” our academic writings, we should certainly seek to be clear and engaging as we make our arguments and further our proposals.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) seeks “to show how a writer quickly and efficiently transforms a rough first draft into a version crafted for the reader” (x). Williams wants to see academic writing that is clear and elegant, where the style serves to enhance the presentation instead of distract from it. “Whatever else a well-educated person can do,” he writes, “that person should be able to write clearly and to understand what it means to do that” (2).

In this post, I want to draw out four especially helpful pieces of advice found in Williams’ book. 

1. Diagnose the Reasons We Fail to Write Clearly and Gracefully.

Williams begins his book on style by explaining the need for it: we write badly. He lists three reasons for bad writing.

  1. Too many people seek to impress others with a pretentious writing style. This desire is most prominent in academic circles, where a wooden, uninteresting style is sometimes assumed to be a sign of intellectual achievement. On the contrary, the inability to communicate difficult concepts in clear, concise language is usually a sign of intellectual weakness, not strength.
  2. Too many writers are fearful of making errors they learned about in middle school. They reduce good writing to error-free grammar, and because all their attention is on keeping the rules, they are unable to communicate gracefully and clearly.
  3. Many academics are in over their heads. They are writing about things they do not entirely understand. It is difficult to break down concepts into clear and concise language if the writer’s understanding is still foggy.

2. Master the Principles for Clear and Cohesive Writing.

Be clear!

When it comes to writing with clarity, Williams boils his advice down to two simple suggestions: “Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when (1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of” (21). In other words, avoid abstraction in favor of directness.

We can make our writing clearer and crisper by cutting out nominalizations that slow down the sentence. “The police conducted an investigation” is wordier than saying “The police investigated.”

Or “Our discussion concerned a tax cut” could be shortened to the more direct “We discussed a tax cut.” Nominalizations turn verbs into nouns, which bog down sentences with too many words (31).

Make sure it’s cohesive!

Clarity matters, but cohesion does too. A single sentence might be clear, but the meaning can still get muddled if it is trapped in a disjointed paragraph.

Williams recommends that the beginning of a sentence carry on the concepts the writer has already been discussing. In terms of emphasis, the end of the sentence should contain the most significant information – whatever the writer wants to expand on in the next sentence (48).

Clarity and cohesion go together: clarity results from good sentence structure, while cohesion results from a logical sequence of sentences (51). Williams writes:

“Topic strings and thematic strings constitute the conceptual architecture of a passage, the frame within which you develop new ideas. Topic strings focus your reader’s attention on what a passage is globally about. The thematic strings give your reader a sense that you are focusing on a core of ideas related to those topics” (85).

Cut, cut, cut!

One of the quickest and easiest ways to move toward clarity and grace in one’s writing style is to do liposuction on a rough draft. In other words, trim the fat. Better to be concise than wordy.

How can a writer become more concise? “Compress what you mean into the fewest words,” Williams says. “Don’t state what your reader can easily infer” (115).

Likewise, the writer should have eyes trained to spot redundancies. They come in pairs (“each and every,” “first and foremost”), modifiers (“future plans,” “end result”), and categories (“period of time,” “unusual in nature”) (116-18).

Concision is to be commended, but being concise is not the writer’s only goal. There are times when lengthy sentences are preferable. “It is not length alone, or number of clauses alone, that we ought to worry about, but rather long sentences without shape,” Williams writes (136). Shorter is usually better, but not always, which means we ought to refrain from holding too tightly to a principle that may sometimes need to be discarded. This discussion on rule-breaking leads us to another important word of advice from Williams.

3. Do Not Believe Everything You Learned in Grammar School.

Throughout this book, the reader senses Williams’ bewilderment at the fixation of some scholars and schoolteachers on certain grammatical preferences. Williams chastises teachers who turn helpful principles into unbending rules. Using a formula that resembles Jesus’ teaching on the Law (“You have heard it said… but I say…”), Williams exposes the myths many of us learned in grammar school.

The key to Williams’ thought process is flexibility. “All local principles must yield to higher principles,” he writes. “The real problem is to recognize these occasions when we should subordinate one principle to another” (64).

There is give-and-take between general principles in English writing. A skilled writer understands what principle works best in a given situation.

Here are some examples of going against what you may have learned in grammar school.

  • Writers are often told to avoid the passive tense. But Williams believes that the passive tense can sometimes be more effective than the active tense. What he always opposes is passive writing that relies on abstract nouns and missing characters (23). Passive writing is more than the tense of the verb.
  • Many teachers insist on always using third-person (40). But Williams believes combining third-person objectivity with passive verbs ensures an uninteresting experience for the reader.
  • Writers are often encouraged to strive for “elegant variation” – the desire to use synonyms rather than repeat the same word. But according to Williams, repetition is to be preferred because using two words for one concept may confuse the reader into thinking the writer means two different concepts (87).

When in doubt regarding a rule in English, it is best to observe what good writers do, and then follow their example. “We must reject as folklore any rule that is regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose,” he writes (179). In light of this instruction, we can dispense with the notion that proper sentences never begin with a conjunction or end with a preposition.

We should also keep in mind that “a writer who observes every rule can still write wretched prose. And some of the most lucid, precise, and forceful prose is written by those for whom some of these rules have no standing whatsoever” (197).

4. Draw Attention to Your Ideas, Not Your Writing.

Williams wants writers to pay attention to style so that readers will not have to. Grammatical mechanics and stylistic principles exist for the communication of ideas, not for the admiration of the author’s skill.

Remember the reader!

Williams constantly reminds his readers to remember theirs. “You avoid monotony by saying what you have to say as clearly as you can,” he writes, “by so thoroughly engaging your readers in your ideas that they lose touch with the surface of your prose” (54).

Remembering the reader is the one rule that trumps all the general principles that Williams puts forth. For example, when he recommends that writers seek an economy of words, he submits the principle to a higher purpose: “The real measure of economy should be whether we have achieved our ends, whether our readers understand or do what we want them to” (59). Likewise, he encourages us to “underestimate a reader’s knowledge and make themes explicit” (85), to consider how our readers encounter our prose.

Conclusion

It would have been helpful for Williams to include a chapter on creativity in this book. He hints at the need for creative writing in his chapter on elegance when he discusses similes and metaphors (164), but a full chapter would have been useful. Even so, Style is a helpful treatment of common writing principles that should help writers improve their craft and communicate their ideas with clarity and grace.

 
 

Sep

11

2012

Trevin Wax|3:25 am CT

4 Things Every Intellectually-Minded Person Should Remember

A sense of trepidation accompanies me at the beginning of my Ph.D. studies. One look at the syllabi for my first week of seminars, and I am overwhelmed by the pages to be read, papers to be written, ideas to be considered, and arguments to be made.

At the same time, a flash of excitement and courage wells up inside me when I think of all the men and women who have traveled this road. In the midst of life’s pressures and family responsibilities, work requirements and daily routines, men and women across the world have carved out space in their lives to embark on the journey of “the intellectual life.”

Following in their footsteps, I share their passion but need their perspective. I share their calling but need their counsel.

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods was written in 1934 by A.G. Sertillanges, a scholar who upheld and embodied the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, the towering theologian of the Middle Ages. Here are four major themes that I found particularly helpful in Sertillanges’ work.

Lesson #1: Recognize the Intellectual Life as a Calling.

One does not stumble into the intellectual life. Rather, one accepts this life as one accepts the call to a new vocation. The purpose of this vocation is to develop and deepen one’s mind and thinking, but this calling should go beyond personal ambition or mere hobby.

Sertillanges envisions the intellectual life as directed by a passion for truth-seeking as a service to others. “Truth is ever new,” he writes. “Like the grass of morning, moist with glistening dew, all the old virtues are waiting to spring up afresh. God does not grow old” (15).

Likewise:

“We retain better what has struck us. For this reason along with many others, the intellectual should cultivate that sense of the newness, the freshness of things, which is the starting-point for a vigorous urge towards fruitful creation or research” (184).

The calling to the “intellectual life” should be answered with a continuous cultivation of curiosity. The thrill of discovery is what bids us along in our pursuit of truth. Sertillanges imagines the scholar as “carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration” (126).

Far from a sterile routine of burying oneself in dusty books, the intellectual life is an adventure, an ongoing exploration of truth. As such, it demands discipline and rigor commensurate with the seriousness of its calling. “Vocation means concentration,” he writes. “The intellectual is consecrated; let him not scatter himself in exacting futilities” (43).

Lesson #2: Submit Your Intellectual Pursuits to Truth.

Sertillanges commands us to put aside personal ambition and devote ourselves to the discovery of truth. The scholar seeks to “find things,” not “make them” (130). “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us,” he says. “Truth serves only its slaves” (4).

Any intellectual aspiration must be subservient to truth. We pursue truth whatever the cost. “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating truth to itself,” Sertillanges writes (6).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the receiving or rejecting of criticism. “If the criticism is right and you wrong, do you mean to resist truth?” he asks (252). Scholars committed to discovering and promoting truth must be willing to admit their failures and squelch their selfish tendencies.

“Inspiration is incompatible with selfish desire. Whoever wants something for himself sets truth aside: the jealous God will not sojourn with him” (210).

The pursuit of truth leads us beyond academic studies of books, journals, and seminars. “Truth is everywhere,” Sertillanges writes. In the normal activities of life there is a “continuous stream” passing by, giving inspiration to the scholar’s soul (72). Truth is not discovered in books alone but also in “conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls…. In all contemplation, even that of a fly or of a passing cloud, there is a fit occasion for endless reflection” (73).

Since truth can be found anywhere, all areas of study ultimately connect to each other. “No branch of knowledge is self-sufficing,” Sertillanges writes (102). One’s study in the field of science may lead to new ideas in the field of sociology. One’s enjoyment of classic literature may yield insights in the study of theology. No area of study exists in isolation, sealed off from all others. Truth is interconnected.

Pursuing truth also leads us to celebrate and affirm truth no matter where it comes from. “Train yourself to indifference about sources,” Sertillanges writes. “Truth alone has a claim, and it has that claim wherever it appears” (135).

Because truth reigns over all scholarly endeavors, we impoverish ourselves if we limit our discovery of truth only to those who agree with us. To this end, Sertillanges advises the scholar to read people who are often wrong.

“He who stumbles without falling makes a bigger step forward” (164).

Through studying the errors of others, we may be given the opportunity to discover and savor new truths.

Lesson #3: Understand the Intellectual Life Requires Considerable Discipline.

Sertillanges advises the scholar to create space for concentrated study. A strict and rigorous routine does not hinder the liberty of study but enables it. “A stream narrowly hemmed in by its banks will flow more impetuously,” he writes (8-9). Discipline refers more to intentionality and concentration than to the quantity of hours spent in solitude. “Have you two hours a day?” he asks (11). “It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely” (96).

On reading, Sertillanges advises the scholar to exercise wisdom in two things: choosing books and choosing in books. Regarding the choice of books, he recommends we go to the sources “in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand,” while “choosing in books” refers to the practice of reading only what is most relevant to the pursuit of truth. Not everything in a book is “of equal value” (150-51). Sertillanges advocates smarter reading, not necessarily more reading, since “the mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (147).

There are places in The Intellectual Life where Sertillanges’ recommendation of solitude tends toward an unhealthy introspection. “We must bear in mind that one can only unfold oneself in that fashion by first living with oneself, closely, in solitude,” he writes (50). Likewise, when he advises the scholar to “rise above things” even when engaging in other activities, he borders on affirming a Gnostic-like existence that does not allow us to be fully present in the daily routines of life. “You must become all spirit,” he writes (40).

Despite some of these overstatements, Sertillanges’ vision of a well-balanced life is welcome. “We must not overestimate ourselves, but we must judge of our capacity,” he writes (28). Over-extenuation can be avoided through proper diet, spending time outdoors, and getting sufficient sleep. Exercise also plays an important role in the life of the mind. “Many workers set their brain in motion by means of the motion of their limbs” (220).

Spending time with children should be seen not as distraction from the intellectual task but as a refreshing interruption.

“Children complicate life, but so sweetly that they should serve to give the worker fresh courage rather than to lessen his resources” (45).

Likewise, Sertillanges is right to maintain the difference between solitude and isolation (12). A scholar must be nourished and sharpened by his colleagues.

Sertillanges’ counsel goes beyond the hours of intellectual activity. There is even a disciplined way to sleep! “Sleep itself is a worker,” he writes (82). It is during sleep that our brains continue to work and connect the truths we have been studying. One should not view rest as a necessary evil, but as one of the scholar’s great blessings. A life of constant discipline will lead us to maintain a routine that maximizes our energy and output.

“The best way of all to relax would be, if possible, not to get tired” (244).

Lesson #4: Remember the Goal of the Intellectual Life is Virtuous Character.

The most illuminating insight in Sertillanges’ book is the connection between truth and virtue. Character matters. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good,” he writes. “Their roots communicate” (19). It does us no good to discover the truth and then fail to live accordingly.

As one applies truth to the everyday choices of life, one grows in virtue and by extension grows in his or her capacity to discover more truth.

“Is not virtue the health of the soul? And who will say that health does not affect the sight?” (20)

The finished work of the scholar is not the papers one hands in or the books one writes.

“The man is the finished work” (235).

Truth is connected to life. Life must bow to truth.

Conclusion

It is no surprise that Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life is still in print after so many years. The truths in this book assist the scholar in understanding the purpose of research, the desire for truth, and the cultivation of healthy work habits.

 
 

Jan

10

2012

Trevin Wax|3:05 am CT

Wordsmithy: 5 Questions for Doug Wilson about Writing

Books on writing bore me. Either they focus too much on grammatical do’s and don’ts or they exalt the intangible features of good writing that are caught, not taught. That’s why most writing books leave me with a passionate desire to write more – not because they’ve inspired me but because I’d much rather go ahead and write than read another boring book about writing.

Doug Wilson’s brief book Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life is a delightful exception. Wilson only has seven exhortations for us writer-wanna-be’s, and he delivers them in two pages. That’s right. In two pages, you get the gist of the book, but those two pages will whet your appetite for what the rest of the book delivers.

Reading Wordsmithy is a lot like savoring a meal at the same time you are learning to cook. As you learn how to mix up the ingredients that make for good writing, Wilson dons his chef’s hat in order to properly demonstrate all that he is exhorting you to. In other words, you won’t leave the table hungry.

After reading WordsmithyI sent Doug a few questions about writing. Here are his answers:

Trevin Wax: When did you first begin to write?

Doug Wilson: I remember wanting to “make books” around the sixth grade. And I think I wrote my first poem around the same time (it was about a sea anemone). But I did not seriously begin to write until after my stint in the Navy, when I was around 22.

Trevin Wax: Have you always found joy in the writing process? Or is joy something that has developed over time?

Doug Wilson: When I began to set myself to writing, my initial efforts were pretty stiff and cardboardy. But I wanted to do it and wanted to learn how to do it.

I think that I knew from the beginning that joy was the point. My wife already had her degree in English Lit, and I was a philosophy major. She knew how to type, and at the time I didn’t, so she would type out my papers for me. I must have set myself to making it interesting early on because I remember her telling me that I couldn’t put things “like that” in an academic paper. I had enjoyed reading lively writing from the time I was in high school (C.S. Lewis, William F. Buckley, et al.), and I knew I wanted to move in that direction if I could figure out how. Other models came later – e.g. Wodehouse, Mencken.

Trevin Wax: One of the takeaways from your book is that writers should know the rules of grammar but also be willing to bend them. Are you a word fusser or a word libertine?

Doug Wilson: I would say I am a fusser on the basics and a libertine around the edges. To illustrate, I think table manners are essential to civilized life, but if the court of Louis XIV demands 22 salad forks, my sympathies move to the antinomians.

Clear thinking and clear writing go together, and the rules of grammar are (for the most part) dedicated to keeping things clear. When they begin to obscure that clarity and become counterproductive, then it is time to remember that man was not made for the Sabbath.

Trevin Wax: What’s the correlation between good reading and good writing?

Doug Wilson: Good reading is foundational. Constant exposure to that which is undeniably good helps train your ear. It helps train you to throw out things that are guilty of no writing “sin” but that are equally free of any virtue. A melody can be dull without breaking any musical laws, and writing can come off like it was written by a committee without parts or passions. Reading good stuff educates a future writer in the intangibles.

Trevin Wax: What’s your take on the current state of the “blogosphere”? Do blogs help us write better?

Doug Wilson: Some blogs are great, of course, but most of that world is just noise. And most of the really good stuff is going to find its way into print. Blogs are a way for a prospective writer to make it in the minors.

The best thing about blogs is that they provide a dedicated writer with an occasion to crank it out in a disciplined fashion. If he gets good, his blog will get noticed, or his writing talents will be. But this only works because this part of our world is like the rest of the world. Cream rises, which only works if it is not all cream.

 
 

Nov

21

2011

Trevin Wax|3:42 am CT

The Gospel Project

UPDATE: The website for The Gospel Project has been launched.

A little over a year ago, I transitioned out of pastoral ministry and took on the role of editor at LifeWay Christian Resources of a new small group curriculum for churches.

Beginning Stages

My first two months at LifeWay (November-December 2010) were primarily focused on helping develop the vision for the new curriculum. In conjunction with Ed Stetzer (general editor), I began mapping out what topics this curriculum might cover. We put together some different options – some focused more on systematic theology, others focused on a variety of approaches, etc.

We also began putting on paper the core values we wanted to keep at the forefront of this curriculum. “Theologically robust” (which we renamed “deep, but not dry”), “Christ-centered,” “Grand-narrative-focused,” and “Mission-driven” are the important elements we want to see in every quarter and (hopefully) every lesson. We took these buzz words and fleshed out how they might apply to a curriculum.

Advisory Council

Then we brought together an advisory council to speak into the project, leaders like D.A. CarsonMatt ChandlerJames MacDonaldJ.D. Greear, Eric MasonJuan SanchezCollin HansenKimberly ThornburyJoe Thorn, Danny Akin, and Jay Noh. We met with members of the council in Dallas and Chicago earlier this year and received helpful feedback and great insight into this curriculum.

The meetings with the advisory council were very helpful. The group helped us refine the vision, make needed adjustments, and craft a three-year cycle that brings together systematic theology within the framework of the Bible’s grand narrative. After both meetings, we went back to the drawing board – affirmed in our general direction yet helpfully challenged in some of the particulars.

The Writing Begins

We went back and forth on a few different names for this new curriculum, finally settling on TGM (Theology, Gospel, Mission), a name that helped us crystallize the three components we wanted to have present in every lesson. Earlier this year, we began gathering writers for the initial quarters. The writers’ meetings have been wonderful. I can’t believe I get to meet and work with such great people!

Some of our writers include: George Robinson (professor of missions and evangelism at Southeastern Seminary who has done extensive work on the evangelistic tool The Story), Jared Wilson (pastor in Vermont, author of LifeWay’s Threads study Abideand Gospel Wakefulness), Juan Sanchez (pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, TX), Halim Suh (pastor at Austin Stone Community Church), Jonathan Leeman (editorial director of 9Marks), Geoff Ashley (discipleship pastor at The Village Church in Dallas, TX), etc.

The curriculum launches in Fall of 2012. The second and third installments of the material will take people on a journey through the Bible in 26 weeks. George Guthrie (Union University professor and author of Read the Bible for Life) has been instrumental in helping us think through how best to accomplish this task.

Major Development – “The Gospel Project”

At the same time I was working on editing the adult curriculum, a student team and a kids team were working on similar products for those age groups. A couple weeks ago, Eric Geiger, the new vice president over the Church Resources Division at LifeWay, recommended that we bring these three curriculum options under one umbrella. This change shifted me from being editor of the adult piece to being managing editor of all three lines. My task is now to oversee the gospel-centered content development across all age groups. Ed Stetzer is now general editor of all three lines as well.

These changes also meant we would need to (yet again) change the name, so as to accurately reflect the emphasis for all age groups. We’ve settled on the name “The Gospel Project.” The new name communicates the ongoing nature of this curriculum roll-out. It also communicates that this isn’t just about creating Bible studies. The curriculum itself isn’t the project that’s most important; we are. We are the gospel project. Our prayer is that as small groups of all ages work through these studies, the gospel will work on us. The church is God’s gospel project.

I’d appreciate your prayers for me and for the teams who are working on this new product. We believe “The Gospel Project” has the potential to serve the church in a good way, as it provides a gospel-centered resource for children, students, and adults.