Younger seminary professors sometimes ask me about my experiences as a writer. Many have trouble finding time to write, a situation for which I have sympathy.
For the first four years of my teaching career, I was teaching an average of ten courses a year, many of them new courses and some of them outside my discipline. But when I was not teaching, preparing, ministering, worshiping, or attending meetings, I made research and writing my default setting. Because it was part of my mission to serve the church, I squeezed out every available moment to do it. That, of course, meant no television, but I had long before gotten used to that, and it proved a useful habit to cultivate. (Being single at the time also helped, but I do much prefer
Logistics of writing
What helped me most was how much work I had done in advance. Even as an undergraduate, I started taking careful notes on everything valuable that I read, then filing each piece of information according to the Scripture passage(s) it would help me understand. This was before the days of computers, so I ended up with 100,000 index cards of information (and a sore hand).
Whatever stage of career you are in, it is important to take good notes and organize the information so you can find it when you need it. Otherwise, you may find yourself vaguely recalling some relevant information but not recalling where you found it. That is when research becomes, sadly, “re-search.” Keep track of your information so you do not need to waste time looking for it twice.
At least for me, it is simpler to write in stages rather than all at once. If you are writing something that is information-based, you can organize most of your information and ideas before you begin writing. That makes writing much easier.
The stage of writing the rough draft is the most tedious—at least for me. It requires the greatest level of uninterrupted concentration. But once you have something down on paper, most of the most difficult work is done.
After this “pre-writing,” you can do your rewriting. Because I spend too much time in front of the computer, I personally prefer to do this stage in hard copy. After I print out my rough draft, I mark it up. Editing the work gives you the opportunity to view it as a whole. Leaving some time between writing and editing also helps you read it almost like someone who has never read it before—when what you meant is no longer obvious unless you have communicated it clearly.
If your rough draft does not already provide lead-ins for each section, now is the time to add them. By starting each section with a sentence or two summarizing what you will cover in that section, you will make your flow of thought much clearer for your readers. (Lead-in sentences also make many paragraphs clearer.)
Motivation for writing
Seminaries and divinity schools are professional schools, combining academic rigor with the training of servants for the church. Seminary professors thus have both academic and popular constituencies; we may write for either or both audiences.
What is most important is to write what the Lord gives you a passion for—something that you feel can make a difference (hopefully not only for tenure). Often I write with scholarly concerns (e.g., my four-volume Acts commentary); sometimes I have also addressed questions about the sources’ reliability left over from my preconversion atheism.
The reason I went into scholarship to begin with, however, was to understand and help others understand what the Bible communicated to its first audiences, so some of my earliest works were directly for the church. In particular, I wanted to make available the setting of the New Testament for pastors, seminarians, and other readers in an accessible format. Since no one had written a “Bible background commentary” by the time I finished my doctorate, I resolved to write one.
Unfortunately, I could not find a teaching position for my first year out of my PhD program. I was praying frantically, but soon it became obvious that I would be unemployed that fall! One evening I calculated how much income I needed to live on and gave up in despair; the next day, the publisher called me about my proposed background commentary. They offered me an advance that was, to the dollar, what I had decided the night before I needed to live on! So that year I wrote the draft of the commentary, and the next year I had a teaching position.
Following the passion God lays on your heart not only provides motivation to write; it also can help us produce what will be useful for others.
Originally published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education (November 2017).