On writing

Know the rules, and how to break them the right way

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001

The biggest help to my writing has been the discipline of having to fit everything into 800 words. That's on the "craft" side. On the "inspiration" side it's the daily reading of Scripture. The World Journalism Institute gave me three hours to tell students in Asheville how I write, but I had only those two points, really. WJI could have saved itself a little money.

I read a whole book on potty training once, which is a bit much, don't you think? A yellow highlighter boiled the essentials down to about an ounce of meat sandwiched between lots of airy bread. What follows is my ounce of meat.

How to write an essay: You're drifting off and a thought pops in; and it sounds like a lead sentence so you jot it on the pad you keep under the bed. You look for sleep, but it tugs at your ear, till you finally give in and brainstorm the idea for all it's worth-the gems and the junk alike. Come daylight, you mentally solve syntactical problems-while folding laundry, molding meatballs, conversing with your neighbor.

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Then you sit in front of a white page, terrified. You phone your mother crying, "This is ridiculous! I can't write! Who am I kidding!"-which is all well and good, but eventually you have to face the paper again. You take a deep breath and say, "OK, don't make art, just make sense." (The movie Finding Forrester notes, "You write the first draft with your heart, and the second draft with your head"-which isn't too bad for Hollywood: Just get it all down.)

Good writing is confident and lean. Compare the first sentence of this essay with an alternative: "There are perhaps many helpful tips for writing, but in my opinion, one of the most helpful may be to try to fit everything you have to say into an essay of approximately 800 words." Zzzzzzzzzzz. You've already gone to the kitchen to make "s'mores," right?

Replace generalities with vivid details ("gone to the kitchen to make 's'mores'" is slightly better than "gone to the kitchen for a snack"-which is hands down better than mumbling about the reader's "waning interest"). "Brief fame": forgettable; "15 minutes of fame": a keeper. And if Abe Lincoln had said "Many years ago," instead of "Four score and seven years ago," he'd have been right that the world would "little note nor long remember."

Thou shalt not resort to clichés. Thou shalt not hold out for the "best" of all leads-a good lead will do. Thou shalt not try to produce the definitive piece on St.Patrick-a helpful one will do. Thou SHALT use parallelism from time to time, to spice things up.

Jesus taught by telling stories. Think about it.

Say things in a startling way (there are precedents: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out"). Then be ready to take your lumps in the "letters to the editor."

Conversational writing doesn't mean indifference to grammar; learn the difference between a comma and semicolon. On the other hand, forget what Sister Clair said in 3rd grade about sentences ALWAYS needing a subject and verb. Not so. But know how to break the rules the right way.

What's good for life is good for the writing life: Write "anything that would be helpful" (Acts 20:20). Also, you have heard that it was said, "The writer makes his own luck"-meaning that he should go out and live an exciting life. But the Lord says, "Defend the cause of the weak" (Psalms 82:3)-and you will have material aplenty.

Don't be intimidated by the "other guys" (Time, Newsweek). "Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?" (Jeremiah 8:9). Besides, they throw around phrases like "a house divided cannot stand" without a clue as to where they come from.

Dirty little secrets of the trade: Writers don't know where they're going till they get there; first drafts are always pathetic; there is no such thing as an original thought.

Writing as a Christian is a path strewn with tough choices and trade-offs, and sometimes you blow it. If you save back issues or hit the Internet, dig up the May 26 "Judgment Calls" and cross out "love" and write in "sex." The preacher's anecdote-to illustrate that mortals are ill equipped to compare earthly joys to heaven's-actually went, "Daddy, is sex better than chocolate?" Clearer now, right?

Still, if you think this is for you, here is your first assignment: Write a thousand words, as tight as you can make it, on "Why I want to write for WORLD." Then slash it by 50 percent. Now you've got yourself an essay.

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