I am a reader. Actually, that sentence is too weak to describe my reading habits. I am constantly surrounded by the written word—stacks of books, journals and magazines can be found all around my office and home. Besides these, I have electronic media—Kindle, e-books, RSS feeds and blogs. You can tell where in the house I spend time, by the collections of reading material. Even when watching TV I have something to read. I read during commercials, or whenever a show loses my interest. It is not unusual for me to miss a whole movie because I started reading during a commercial and never stopped.
This habit exposes me to a great deal of writing—Christian and otherwise. In Christian writing I see a practice that has truly bothered me over the years. While it is present in other genres of writing, I am most sensitive to it in Christian materials. There is a sloppiness of thought and construction in much of the writing put out to the Christian reading public. Some of the worst is found on blogs—since traditionally published works involve a professional editor. As I address this, you have to understand my view of the written word.
Most Christian authors believe their writing to be from God—not equal to scripture, but powerful, none the less. Whether sharing an exposition of scripture, an argument supporting belief or a short devotional piece, the author believes the words capable of impacting the world and changing lives—often because their own lives have been changed. Because of this belief such words should be framed in the best writing possible.
The Greatest Problem with much of Christian Writing
Free writing, in which the author ignores structure by writing whatever comes to mind, can be a useful tool. However, it is usually not meant to produce a finished product. It is usually used to power through writer’s block and free up the mind for moving on to the actual project. However, some use it to get their ideas on paper, like a brainstorming session. They simply start with pen and paper, or keyboard and computer, letting the words and thoughts flow freely—giving little critical thought to how they fit, or even if they fit together. If this is your method, fine. I have used it myself. However, remember that a good first step seldom ends the journey.
When writing like this, it is easy to forget how much of our thoughts never get expressed on the page. In my head one thought goes with another because something unexpressed may bridge the gap in my own mind. It is easy to forget the reader does not have access to these unexpressed thoughts. The reader is limited to what is actually on the page. Thoughts should work together as a whole with beginning, middle and end (or you could call it ‘introduction, body, conclusion’). Throwing a bunch of random thoughts together communicates nothing. It may be beautiful to you. It may have meaning for you. But it fails at the purpose of writing—taking an idea from your mind and transferring it to the mind of another.
A good way to discover wandering is to lay it aside for a couple days or more and return to it with fresh eyes—after the unspoken assumptions have fallen away. Read the materials out loud to get a feel for how the thoughts go together. This gives you a feeling for how the reader will see (hear) your writing. As you read, look for assumed material not on the page and flesh out where needed. Are you drawing a mental map going from one premise to another and on through to a conclusion? If your thoughts jump from subject to subject, reconsider. Move from thought A to thought B, then to thought C and on to your conclusion.
Even when the thoughts go from A to B to C, in proper order they can be disjointed. As you change from one focus to another you need to alert the reader to the change. This is done by transitions. Transitions inform the reader of a change of focus, rather than forcing the reader to figure out what happened. A transition tells the reader, “I just spoke about premise A, now I want to focus on premise B.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when wandering disjointed writing is appropriate. Perhaps you are sharing a personal journey of understanding in which you share your disjointed thinking as you work it through. Go ahead, but at least let the reader know this is what you are doing. If for no other reason, at least he or she knows you see how disjointed your thinking is. This also saves your reputation with the reader. Few things turn one off a reader faster than jarring mistakes in structure or thinking that the author does not seem to see. If your goal is to convince me of your point, it is essential you present it properly. If I am to consider your argument fairly, it is up to you to make that possible.
Those who read this should not take it as criticism or as me pretending to be an expert on writing. I am no such thing. I struggle to write well and more often than not feel I fail. I can recommend to every Christian writer and blogger a practice that I have followed for years. Each year I read at least one book to improve my writing skills. It can be something on punctuation, on style or on grammar. I cannot count the times I have learned previous assumptions about writing were wrong—including some things I have been taught by English teachers and the ever present Grammar Expert (I thought this was nicer than saying ‘Grammar Nazi’).
If writing is your craft and you believe God has called you to it, please put in the work involved with mastering any craft. The words we share have a potential of changing the world. Let’s learn to use them wisely and skillfully.