IVP - Behind the Books - Writing, Talking and Best Practices: An Editor's Diatribe

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.
2. Don’t 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
Writing is communicating without the benefit of body language, vocal inflections, and the dynamic of call-and-response. So writing a book is communicating at an obvious disadvantage. Some coping mechanisms that authors fall into include
· writing like a teacher
· writing like a preacher
· writing like a dead person
We write like a teacher when we've read too many books because teachers have forced us to. We start to think books have to be dry and authoritarian and the kind of thing that people endure. And so we write that way, stripping all the passion from our voice, using bigger words than we would ever speak, and intentionally avoiding personal engagement with the reader.

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 We use language that is outdated, picture an audience that died alongside our favorite authors, and fail to consider the current felt needs of our readers.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
The trouble with writing like you talk, however, is that you talk with your mouth, and you write with your hands. There are necessary adaptations you have to make as you transition.

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 writers are rewriters. Writing is a long process, and the first draft of a book or an article ought never to be considered the final draft. The best writers write with great passion and urgency, with a clear idea of what they want to say and who they want to hear it. But then they read what they’ve written, and they strip away all the waffling and apologies and bullying that have gotten in the way of the message.

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.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at October 22, 2007 11:36 AM Bookmark and Share


Beautiful, Dave.

Comment by: Taryn at October 23, 2007 8:28 AM

: )

Comment by: Christine A. Scheller at October 24, 2007 9:30 AM

These are great thoughts. I'm starting to work on a new book after a long break from writing and I find your advise helpful. Thanks.

Comment by: josh harris at October 26, 2007 7:56 AM

Decades ago, a fellow told me that I wrote exactly like I talked. It was both a compliment and a criticism.

I've since found that one of my great weaknesses along that line is over-italicizing. (Oops.) That is, every word that I would emphasize in speech, I italicize in writing. The result is... 'way too many italics. When I've gone over older writing, I've un-italicized scores of words. Sometimes I've thought it might be best to un-italicize the entire document, then put back a few.

The worst example I've ever seen in a popular author is Jay Adams' books. Obviously, the brother loves his "asides" when he talks. In writing, that translates into dozens and dozens and dozens of parentheses. I've seen multiple parenthetical remarks within the same sentence.

(I resisted the temptation to italicize that last clause.)

(Oh, but darn — I parentheticized!)

Comment by: Dan Phillips at October 26, 2007 8:38 AM


Comment by: Kirk at November 1, 2007 4:52 PM

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