I can’t stop writing. Whether I write well or not, I will let others decide. All I know is that I am a writer—because I have the two things that make someone worthy of the title “writer”: (1) deadlines and (2) a paycheck. And I offer what little advice I can give to aspiring writers. In ten maxims.
1. Good writing is truth through personality.
In normal circumstances, you’ll never hear me say anything close to “Be yourself.” Our culture says that often enough; the few people who need to hear it can hear it from others. But as a writer, you do need to find your voice. An old friend in college told me, “When I read what you write, I can hear you saying those words.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that praise would become an ideal for me, a goal to shoot for. I think it also shaped the way I talk, made it a bit more formal, more like writing.
I had a brilliant, witty friend in grad school, an English teacher, and he made a similar comment: “People like to read what you write, Mark, because they get in contact with a person, with you.” We were close enough friends that I could tell him that was just the thing missing from his own writing: himself. And the terrible irony was that he was so scintillating a person. What gave? I don’t know. Maybe he got the cockeyed idea students sometimes get that the scaffolding we put around beginners in school is writing. Or maybe he feared rejection. Sharing your inner life through writing can leave you vulnerable. Which leads me to my second point, which should properly be my first and last.
2. Good writing is a work of love.
It’s being compelled by love for God and others to speak truth in as persuasive and beautiful a way as possible. In fact, I don’t know any way to push past the kinds of inhibitions my friend had, and to risk rejection, except by loving others more than one’s own safety.
Theologically speaking, all of our loves are twisted by sin. But Christians should, ideally, be able to write lovingly because regeneration reorders our loves toward the God of truth and beauty who made our neighbors in his image. Good writing works in love to bring a nutritious and savory dish to other people’s tables. And I must stress this: to do this, you have to have some ingredients in the kitchen. You need to know something they don’t know. You need to do homework—work work—they haven’t done. Thinking, reading, talking, praying they haven’t done. That’s hard; it takes time.
3. Good writing masters the mechanics in order to get them out of the mind and into your second nature.
I’m talking about spelling, about comma splices, about the lie/lay distinction, about arranging your linguistic forks properly upon the dinner table and using them in the right order.
Maybe it isn’t fair that good writing demands this kind of attention to niceties that usually come only through years of education, and I hasten to add that I know a capable dyslexic woman whose writing is compelling despite her sometimes humorous spelling struggles!
Ideally, you mind your grammatical p’s and q’s while you’re young so that you can eventually forget about minding them because you employ them without thinking. In every email I write, even the quick ones, I work to have correct punctuation and spelling and sentence structure.
4. Good writing submits to good editors.
I had a coworker hundreds of moons ago who wrote horribly. He was stilted and dated at the same time. I was aghast. And not just a ghast—I mean, I was, like, multiple ghasts. I would lie on the floor after reading his prose just ghasting. I gently tried to nudge his prose in a better direction, but he would have none of it. Not a syllable could be altered. He operated by the writing principle handed down from the Medes and the Persians to Pontius Pilate: What I have written, I have written.
This taught me a thing or two. If I wanted to write well, I should read a lot of edited prose and write a lot of it. I’d been edited by competent people for years already. I leaned further into their editing, eager to learn. I even let them chop at my precious humor (though I wasn’t disappointed when I saw repeatedly that editors who got to know me let more of it through over time).
Editors can see dangers you don’t. The last time I meekly submitted to an editor, I wrote with a Russian accent, and she gently said the gag just didn’t fly. So I blew it up on the runway so the Russians wouldn’t get US humor technology.
I’ve had some great editors. And they were at their best when they picked up on systemic problems in my writing—and offered systemic solutions, some of which are reflected in my maxims. What a privilege, I came to see, to have someone with his own (editorial) deadlines and paychecks nicely telling me how wrong I am (Prov 17:10). Don’t turn that down. Seek it.
5. Good writing is not too conscious of itself.
This is the maxim I struggle with the most. But what can I say? There’s a fine line here, and I hope I stay on the right side of it. I pray I do. Verbal acuity, yea, even wit—these are tools that need to be used in the service of God and neighbor.
If I really just love words, and I do, and if I can paraphrase Eric Liddell, and I can, that when I write English words I feel God’s pleasure—and if I love the truth, and if I love my neighbor, then it’s OK if I express my delight in language by playing around with it and stretching it (see maxim 4).
The key, I think, to avoiding winking, pretentious prose is to keep my eyes on God and others and not let myself start thinking about the praise that comes from men. The other key is that the truth must remain louder than the voice speaking it.
6. Good writing competes for eyeballs without cheating.
Clickbait titles are bad bad bad. Or maybe just bad bad, not bad bad bad. Because you do have to win readers, and how you do that online is with careful titling. Here’s the principle: you can ethically raise curiosity in a clickbaity way as long as you deliver what the title promises.
Clickbait is only frustrating when you click on that headline that says, “You’ll Never Guess What Britney Spears Ate for Lunch That Day,” and see a page of ads but no Britney lunches.
I write articles to inform, delight, and persuade. And I want readers. I want them because I love the truths I am relating and, hopefully, persuading them of. So don’t disdain using titles that elicit their eyeballs.
7. Good writing pays its dues.
Here’s how you get deadlines and paychecks. You write and write and write and you volunteer to write and readers find you and you write more. You blog until you get other opportunities.
Individual blogging, it seems to me, is dead. The people who had it in their blood and couldn’t stop and got readers and made a difference found paid work. The few I still read, like Alan Jacobs, are just wunderkinds who are spilling over with so much good prose that they can give some of it away for free. But money does come to real writers, eventually.
People, despite all the TV shows out there, haven’t stopped reading. And they’re not going to stop. As Substack has shown, they’re willing to pay if the writing is good enough. I pay for writing myself. I saw friends starting blogs when I was in seminary, however, and I sensed that they hadn’t all paid those dues. I knew I didn’t have anything worth reading, not yet. So I waited till I was almost thirty to start a blog. And I tried to stay in my lanes. I still do.
And without any grand plan and with very few connections, I just started typing and typing like a madman. I’m doing it now. I love it when the fit comes upon me. I said it before: I feel God’s pleasure. I think that’s what “gifting” usually means. And I said yes to nearly all invitations to write. And I knocked on doors and I worked at my craft and I suffered rejection but prayed, repented, and learned as needed, and kept going. I can’t stop. I won’t stop. And opportunities started coming. I can’t do what many writers I admire do—people who seem capable of writing endlessly about anything. Instead, I’ve paid some tolls in the lanes I can drive down. And I keep driving.
8. Good writing learns the labels for literary devices.
It does this, of course, for the sake of learning to use them. This is a lifelong effort. And again, the goal is to make this knowledge second nature. Too much attention to zeugma and litotes and hyperbole and assonance and consonance and all the others can quickly become an ostentatious slog.
These devices have labels because they existed first; writers intuitively used them, and used them enough that they eventually needed names. But we moderns enjoy the advantage of those names having been invented already. We don’t have to discover these devices anew. For this I highly recommend Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. It is an absolutely brilliant delight.
I myself never self-consciously think, “I must include a literary device here.” I go by a feel developed over many years. But as with exegetical tools in Bible study, knowing the labels for devices helps me see them once I’ve used them—mainly so I don’t overuse them.
9. Good writing uses big words to delight, not to impress.
This picks up on themes I’ve already mentioned, and it may not deserve its own point. But I must mention David Foster Wallace and Ferguson Darling from Clarissa Explains It All, my favorite Nickelodeon show as an adolescent. Wallace was a brilliant essayist. (You’ve just got to read “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” Or, even better, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”) One thing that delights me in his writing is his occasional use of difficult and obscure words. I checked my Kindle highlights from Wallace’s essays, and I immediately saw “carbuncular,” a word I don’t know, and “sedulous,” a word I do know. Both, however, are uncommon. But somehow these words delight me rather than make me feel small, and they don’t strike me as showing off but as the exertion of a glorious, God-given power.
On the other hand, Ferguson, Clarissa’s annoying redheaded know-it-all younger brother, once learned a bunch of obscure words from the dictionary for the sole purpose of (a) making himself appear superior to others and, crucially, (b) making them feel inferior. I don’t catch that attitude from Wallace, but when I was a kid at camp one summer, another kid truly thought I was Ferguson. I really did look like him. And I’m afraid the resemblance was more than skin deep. I acted like him, too. This is a temptation for me, to this day. We should exult in the riches of our language, but we should try to be Wallaces about it, not Fergusons. As one of my editors used to say, “Kill your darlings!”
10. Good writing leads the reader to green pastures beside still waters.
It pays a lot of attention to sentence flow. You often pick up one idea from the end of one sentence and use it in the next, and often at the beginning of the next. You make their paths smooth before your readers.
Do you see what I did there? I’ve alluded to the one text I can safely assume all my readers will know. I do this all the time. I love writing for Christians, because we all know the Bible, so Christian writing can be like a tree planted by rivers of divine words.
(Ironically, if I were solely concerned about my writing, I would argue for the retention of the King James as the standard translation of the English-speaking church. It makes allusions so easy, and for two reasons. First is that for a long time we all used it, so its wording was familiar to every English-speaking Christian. Second is its archaic English makes allusions that are much easier to spot. You don’t even have to be subtil.)
Writing is leading others down a smooth and beautiful path. And for most of us, that means working hard to clear that path of roots and sticks. Good writing flows pleasingly from sentence to sentence.
Those are my ten maxims. Love God and neighbor, and write truth till the stars fall!
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