My 5 Rules of Writing

April 9, 2013

I’ve been working with words, in one way or another, since I was in high-school and it has been work with words that has formed the majority of my adult working life, both as a writer, editor and now in my role as a pastor. Writing is one of my loves and one of the few things I think I can do reasonably well, though I’m a long, long way from good.

Lots of people ask me what my “method” is for writing. I haven’t given much thought about it, but perhaps it’s worth a blog post. So here are my five rules of writing, if you are interested:

1) Don’t despise small things. Most people start with a book idea, the magnum opus of their lives. But if you start with that, your book won’t be very good. Better to start with small projects for lesser-known publications. Do this for two reasons: 1) To cut your teeth writing and get experience and 2) to build a resume of credits. Magazine editors and book publishers like to see that you’ve been published before. Blogging is starting to flatten that a bit. Still, it’s important to start blogging when only your mother and your wife reads what you write.

2) Above all, keep writing. The best way to get better at writing is to . . . well, write. So to piggyback off of #1, start writing when you’re a nobody and keep writing when you have no audience. For almost 8 years I wrote in total obscurity for a Christian organization, managing their publications, converting sermons into devotionals, articles, and books. This, as I look back, was one of the most important seasons of my life. It taught me to write fast and to produce something.

3) Be editable. Hold your words and ideas loosely. I recently had someone tell me their first draft was ready for publishing. This was the first draft of anything they’d ever written before. It’s not ready for publication. It needs a trained eye, some seasoning, some polishing. The best writing is collaborative. That is to say that you write the very best you can at that moment (a lesson Cecil Murphey taught me) and then allow others to heavily criticize it and edit it. Those red marks are not your enemy, but your best friend. If you’ve read a good book recently that inspired you its because the author had a few unseen eyes polish it. Be grateful for editors. This is God’s way of keeping you humble. In the immortal words of one of my editors, “You’re not Hemingway, so you need an editor.” Yes, yes. The older you get, the more you will actually seek out good editors to look at your stuff. I have two or three folks who do this for major book projects.

4) Find your voice. The thing about writing and getting more and more experience writing–is that you find your voice. Don’t strive to be the next ______. To quote Jon Acuff, that slot is already taken. Be you. And your voice will mature and grow as you mature and grow. Fill up your soul with good reading, life experiences, faith, and love. Drink deeply from a variety of sources and allow your ideas to be shaped and formed. This, more than anything, will make your writing sparkle and grow and inspire. The words I wrote as a young college student probably would inspire nobody now, mainly because I was writing from a position of perceived knowledge, but had not endured any of the real rhythms of life in a fallen world.

5) Find your own method. Some more disciplined writers get up every day at 5 am and crank out 5,000 words, regardless if they have a project. For many years I beat myself up, thinking that needed to be me. Then I realized that this just doesn’t work for me. I’m a deadline guy. I need a deadline to produce. So what I do is continually seek new projects and new ideas which give me new deadlines. Blogging makes this a bit more challenging, however, I’ve committed myself to two or three blogs a week. What’s really cool about this is that I simply write a blog whenever I’m inspired with a short idea that won’t be suitable for an article or a chapter. Then I just sit down and write it and schedule it. So this blog here came right before I was to work on a chapter. I scheduled it to post today. Interestingly, I don’t have a set time that works best for me. I can write at night, in the morning, late at night. Typically with a book project, I do this: I sit down for a large chunk of time and do the writing and I write until I absolutely can’t write anymore. Then I put it to rest for a few days and go back and start editing and then start writing again. Works for me.

A few other thoughts on finding my own method. I tend to work best with music on. For some that distracts. For me, it inspires. I have a hymns playlist that really gets me in the mood for deep reflection. Another key thing for me, is to have a pad of paper handy to write down key thoughts for that chapter or book–to sort of frame a loose outline. For some unexplainable reason, a pen in my hand and paper is better for capturing first seed thoughts. For a while I felt bad that perhaps I should have a more digital tool for this–Evernote or something. But then I remembered that it’s really okay to use a pen and paper. Sometimes digital tools make life more complicated. Lastly, I tend to like to do a bunch of research first, online or in books, and mark it up and organize it before I do my chapter (I do this with my sermons as well). Then I print out the online stuff. I know I could easily just read it online, but again, something about paper and pen here that serves well. I do use Evernote for online articles–just to have one place to keep them for going back and doing footnotes. By the way, I hate footnoting, I hate this work, but it’s important and publishers really keep you on your toes about sources. And as a reader I enjoy being able to see the sources for folks in their books. Still, I hate footnoting. Cool feature of Heaven, btw? No footnoting.