October 22, 2007
Writing, Talking and Best Practices: An Editor's Diatribe
There are at least two principles in writing a book:
1. Write like you talk.
Most people can get one or the other right. The challenge—and, on the face of it, the impossible task—is to get both right.
Write Like You Talk
We write like a preacher when we have the sense that our book is our bully pulpit. So every sentence includes a direct quotation of Scripture, every point is broken into three, and every paragraph is ornamented with pious language (“Can I get an amen?”). The reader feels preached at rather than written to; the book becomes, for the reader, a pew—an uncomfortable place.
Some of us think that the best books are those that have outlived their authors, so we write as though we were dead. We use language that is outdated, picture an audience that died alongside our favorite authors, and fail to consider the current felt needs of our readers. How people hear what they need to hear, however, changes over time because people change over time, and when authors confine their writing style to a bygone era, they fail to serve their readers.
The solution is to write like you talk. Don’t use language that you wouldn’t normally use in conversation. Don’t pound the pulpit or bang the Bible. Don’t pretend you’re C. S. Lewis or Martin Luther or the apostle Paul. Be yourself: pick a topic, think about what you’d say about that topic if someone asked you, and then write down what you find yourself saying.
Don't Write Like You Talk
First off, everybody uses filler language. Some people say “Ummm.” Some people say “Like, totally.” Some people say “Praise God.” That’s the brain buying time while forming a more complete thought. Books, however, have all the time in the world. Filler language has no place in a book; it will grate on a reader. Try to identify your filler language, and edit it out of your writing.
Authors breathe; so do readers. Books don’t. The natural rhythm of speaking will include pauses for a breath, pauses as the direction of the conversation shifts, pauses as the speaker sips from a refreshing beverage. Books do no such thing without the help of the author. And if the book doesn’t breathe, the reader will suffer. Write sentences that end in an appropriate amount of time. Mark the shift of direction with paragraphs, new headings and new chapters. Get to the point of what you’re writing, and then stop. These are editorial functions, but they’re the responsibility of the writer.
People who talk to themselves look weird. If you’re talking, someone should be right there listening, and ideally responding. Authors don’t have the luxury of a real-time audience. The temptation is to supply the voice of the audience—to guess at what they’re thinking as they read, to avoid hurting their feelings unnecessarily. These are good practices in conversation, where you can ask if you’ve guessed correctly or apologize straightaway if you’ve hurt your friend. But what comes across as good relational care in a conversation comes across as equivocating wishy-washiness in writing. An author is providing a resource; as such, an author is a servant, and a servant does not know his master’s business (John 15:15). Get to the point, and set the reader free.
The Best Writers and the Best Books
The best books have zeal and knowledge, power and discipline. The best books carry the passion of their author without carrying the author’s baggage. The best books provide the reader with content and perspectives that they wouldn’t find elsewhere and didn’t know they needed. The best books empower their readers without overpowering them. The best books are written by authors who are leaders and servants and friends to their readers. The best books are hard to write and sometimes hard to read, but they need to be written, and they need to be read.
There: enough said--er, written.