On Writing: Tips and Routines
While I write a lot, I don’t typically write much about writing. In five years of writing a weekly blog post I’ve written about writing less than five times. I figure writing about writing is best saved for the elite, the authors we all know and love.
In the genre of Christian non-fiction, I could listen to Kevin DeYoung and Jared C. Wilson talk tradecraft all day. I’ve never actually heard DeYoung do that; I’m just saying I’d love to do that because he’s so good with words and theology. You never have to read sentences from DeYoung twice . . . unless you want to, which I often do. Jared Wilson has done several engaging interviews about writing (Home Row podcast interviews 1 and 2, and The Forum interview at Midwestern Seminary).
I’d also love to hear novelist Anthony Doerr talk about writing. He authored my all-time favorite novel, All the Light We Cannot See. In the novel, Doerr primarily wrote with present tense verbs rather than the standard historical past tense, which gives such immediacy to the book. Doerr’s website has several links to interviews.
Again, writing about writing—I think—is best saved for the best writers. But every so often a friend will reach out and ask about my writing routines. If you stay at something long enough, people tend to wonder why and how. Chase Replogle was even kind enough to have me on his podcast the Pastor Writer for that purpose. And a few weeks ago a friend asked me a number of questions by email. I don’t want to presume that my answers to his questions will be as interesting to you as Kevin DeYoung’s answers would be to me. But if you’re just beginning to take your writing seriously, perhaps these thoughts will encourage you to do that very thing.
What is your routine for writing? Is it every day, a specific day?
I’ve tried to write one blog post a week for the last five years, though I’ve never made it to 52. Most years I make it to the mid-40s. The first year I didn’t give as much time to blogging, but for the last four years I’ve spent about ten hours each week writing. Somewhere along the way I began to feel compelled to work on the craft as part of my calling, so I made the decision to treat writing like a part-time job—one I really enjoy.
I do most of my writing at our kitchen table every day except Sunday before our kids get up, so typically from 5:30–7 am. Because I don’t work at the church on Fridays, during the school year I often get another hour to write while my younger kids nap and the older ones are at school. For me, plodding along in small doses has been better than marathon, binge writing, which is something I’d never have time for anyway.
This last year, my writing schedule has had a lot of bumps, as my youngest son decided he wants to get up before 5:30. It’s helped me remember that my part-time “job” has no actual boss and very few deadlines not self-inflicted. I try not to begrudge it when the schedule shifts or is swallowed altogether. Except sometimes I do begrudge it, which I hate about myself. I’d like to be more open-handed and tender-hearted than I am.
Do you set specific goals? If so, what do they look like?
As far as writing goals for completing projects, I hear authors talk about hitting word-count goals or a certain number of pages. I just shoot for time-on-task.
If you’re asking about other goals, like style and writing voice, I guess I have an answer for that, but it seems really, really goofy to share with someone else. It’s more of a private mission statement than a public one. But here it goes: I aim to bring clarity to the Christian message of hope with accessible, riveting scholarship. Again, it feels super goofy to write out my purpose statement, but it has brought focus even if I never produce anything worthy of the label accessible, scholarship, or riveting. It’s a shoot for the stars and you hit the moon sort of thing.
What motivates you?
I often find out after the fact that my motivations are more layered than I realize. But if I set aside the sinful motivations that lurk around the edges of my heart, I’d say the main two motivations for writing are joy and obedience. I really do enjoy tinkering with words that point people to God. I’ve heard Douglas Wilson say that for him, writing isn’t “have to” but “get to.” I feel the same.
I also feel a component of obedience related to writing. I joked about not having a writing boss, but I’d like to think I treat writing the way the lay-elders of our church treat their pastoring: serving the church as something they enjoy but also something they feel called by God to do.
How does your writing schedule fit in with your pastoral duties?
I’m not sure I do a good job with this and hope things can change. I tend to think there is a lot of overlap between the kind of writing I do and my pastoral duties at church. Most of my posts are really just devotionals of one kind or another. And all of the longer writing projects are pastoral—at least I hope they are. A few months ago one of the elders commented about how my preaching has grown because of all the writing, which was nice to hear. But for now, I try to keep church and writing separate.
Because I try to publish a new blog post each Tuesday at 2pm, I often need to steal 30 minutes of “church time” for “blog time” to powder the nose of the post before it goes out in public. But since pastors rarely work less than full-time, I know I’m not really stealing. When I first started blogging I worried people in our church would complain that I sat around and wrote all day, so I have probably been more paranoid than necessary.
What are your top 3–5 books that you’ve read on writing?
The most influential book to my writing has been Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. It’s super short but super helpful. My honorable mentions include all of the writing books by Roy Peter Clark: Writing Tools, How to Write Short, Help! For Writers, and The Glamour of Grammar.
This will expand the list beyond five, but also excellent are On Writing by Stephen King, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker, Spunk and Bite by Arthur Plotnik, and the classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.
In addition to books, a few podcasts have been life-giving to me: Home Row hosted by J.A. Medders and the Pastor Writer hosted by Chase Replogle. Jonathon Rogers sends a weekly email called The Habit that I enjoy too.
Beyond Microsoft Word, do you use any specific tools or software to help?
As for writing tools, I’ve never gotten into the writing programs Scrivener or Ulysses, though I hear some writers really like them. I just stay with Microsoft Word. I’ve found Grammarly very helpful, which is an add-on to Word. Grammarly does a deeper dive into the content to find potential mistakes than the spell-check that comes with Word. I started using Grammarly 3 years ago because it embarrassed me to put my sermon manuscripts online. My co-pastor (who recently left) is an excellent writer and probably had no more than two typos a year in his sermons. My sermons have two per page. But Grammarly helped a lot. I also use an electronic reader to listen to everything I write before I publish. The electronic reader helps me hear typos I might not have seen. I wrote a bit about self-editing here.
The other tool is related to Helen Sword’s book called The Writer’s Diet Test. It’s an online analyzer of your prose. You almost have to have read the book first to make sense of it, but I’ve found it more than a little helpful.
Any other thoughts or advice?
Glad you asked, but I feel like it would be pretty arrogant of me to offer writing advice. I took like two classes at a community college on the subject. The only advice I might be able to give is that if you want to write guest posts for websites, I’d start small with places you think will say yes, perhaps for a website where you know someone. That’s helped me a lot. Oh, here’s one more. If you work for a church, have conversations about your writing with the other leaders, specifically how what you write and when you write is related to your work.