Editor Series: Matt Smethurst on rap music and writing

February 7, 2017

This year I’m starting an occasional series of interviews with editors. I’ve had the privilege of knowing, writing for, and learning from many fantastic editors in my writing career. In my view, good writers are good because they have good editors. Today I interview Matt Smethurst.

Matt is the managing editor of The Gospel Coalition. I am deeply grateful for the way Matt and his colleagues at TGC curate rich, biblical, creative content that really helps pastors and church leaders. When I was a young pastor, TGC was a very helpful resource in helping me think through difficult theological issues. I’ve had the privilege of contributing to TGC. Matt here shares his approach to editing in a way that I think you will find helpful:

Dan Darling: Let’s talk about your calling. Has writing and editing been a lifetime pursuit or something you picked up late in life? And if so, what first interested in you in words? 

Matt Smethurst: Calling is not super mystical; it’s found at the crossroads of affinity, ability, and opportunity. Do you like it, can you do it, and is there an open door? By God’s grace, all three pieces have fallen into place, at least for now, in the arena of writing and editing.

As a kid I loved words, especially ones like, “And now, at guard, 6’6″, from North Carolina, Michael Jordan.” My plan was to become an NBA player, not an editor. But God closed that door, and he didn’t open a window.

In all seriousness, I owe a lot to my mom in this regard. She majored in English at William and Mary, and instilled in me a love for words. Her edits on countless school papers taught me what skilled writing looks and sounds like.

Perhaps I should also mention that I’ve loved rap for almost two decades. I have no doubt that the lyricism of secular artists like Eminem and Christian artists like Shai Linne has made me a better wordsmith.

DD: We live in an age when anyone can be published instantly via social media, personal blogs, book reviews, etc. Explain, then, the value of a good editor? 

MS: Good editors enhance a writer’s voice without eliminating it. It’s a dance that I’m still learning.

Candidly, I’ve found most people who write aren’t very good at it. I don’t mean to be harsh; it’s simply that the Internet has democratized the opportunity to be read. There are benefits to this, of course, but drawbacks too. Just because your writing is true doesn’t make it good. Did you labor to make it beautiful? Does it sing? In Reformed circles we often elevate theology at the expense of humanity and truth at the expense of beauty. It’s a tendency that rarely yields stellar prose.

Just as not being published doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, being published doesn’t mean you’re a good one. Numerous pastors, for example, are authors but not writers. Welcome exceptions include Andrew Wilson, Greg Gilbert, Jared Wilson, Garrett Kell, Isaac Adams, Scott Sauls, Russ Ramsey, and Gavin Ortlund.

DD: Is there a distinctly “Christian” way you do your work? In other words, does your personal theology affect the practice of writing and editing? 

MS: Well if insisting on the Oxford comma and removing needless uses of “that” aren’t Christian convictions, then what are?

Everything we publish at TGC is informed by our foundation documents. We want to show how the gospel governs and animates all of life. This doesn’t mean each article needs some lame Jesus Juke at the end, but it does mean we want to be intentional about producing content that wouldn’t easily fit, say, on a Jewish site. We are gospel people, and that should fragrance our writing. (No, “fragrance” isn’t a real verb. I need an editor.)

DD: When you are making decisions about content to publish, how are you evaluating the writer, the piece, and the publication?

MS: Questions I’ll encourage aspiring writers to ask include: Where and how have you seen God’s character, and his gospel in particular, intersect with your experience? What’s a concrete challenge you’ve faced, and what did you learn? What stories can only you tell?

It’s almost always the case that the more specific and personal the angle, the better. “The Most Important Thing I Taught My Kids” will make for a better article than “Advice for Parents.”

DD: Who are some of the formative writing influences that have shaped the way you go about your work? 

MS: Besides my mother, Collin Hansen (TGC’s editorial director) has shaped my editorial instincts more than anyone else. Some contemporary writers I enjoy include Laura Hillenbrand, Malcolm Gladwell, Russell Moore, Kevin DeYoung, Jonathan Leeman, and Jen Wilkin. And the women I work with at TGC—Bethany Jenkins, Betsy Howard, and Melissa Kruger—are each brilliant thinkers and writers from whom I’ve learned much.

DD: What is one piece of advice you would like to give aspiring writers as they seek to get published? 

MS: Proactively seek out constructive criticism. Your craft won’t master itself. One of our regular writers at TGC recently e-mailed to ask how she can work to improve her writing in 2017. She didn’t act as if she’s arrived, and she didn’t wait around for someone else to initiate. Humble yourself, assume you’re less skilled than you think, and then solicit critique from a writer you respect who will give you the gift of honesty.

The Editor Series: You can read other interviews in this series, with David Bennett, Jamie Hughes, Marvin Olasky