May 21

Repetition (That’s Right—Repetition)

Is repetition in your writing good or bad? Well, that depends. Repetition can be used quite effectively, but also very ineffectively. Take this example:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a career change. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of the change. But for his dad, it was a radical change, from industry to education. To move from an engineering office to the college classroom was a change of culture he never really settled into.”

Four instances of “change” in one paragraph! Does it sound contrived? I assure you it is not. It is modeled after a real paragraph from a real author (although it has been modified to protect the guilty). Such redundancy is a clear signal that the paragraph is wordy. By merging sentences and using a synonym or two, it is more succinct and fluid:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a radical career change, from industry to education. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of his father’s move from an engineering office to the college classroom—a cultural shift he never really settled into.”

Removing the repetition really improves this paragraph—and yet, in poetic material or creative prose, repeated use of certain words can be crucial to creating dramatic emphasis, such as in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

What’s the difference? How can you tell if repeating a word is a good or bad thing? Mostly, the success or failure of repetition hinges upon intent. With Tennyson, it’s obvious that the repeated words and phrases are part of the rhythm of the piece—you can actually feel the hoofbeats of the horses, can’t you? But in the paragraph about Joe’s father, the author apparently repeats “change” accidentally.

The only way you are going to make your material sparkle is if you really think through your writing. Your first draft may be written as fast as you can type it in, but when you revise, you need to keep a sharp lookout for things you didn’t notice the first time, like needless repetition. Don’t be a literary sleepwalker!

May 19

A.W. Tozer on Christian Writing

You don’t have to talk to me very long before you find me quoting A.W. Tozer (author of numerous Christian books, including the classics, The Knowledge of the Holy and The Pursuit of God). I have to say he is my favorite Christian writer. Whenever I am feeling spiritually dry, I can always find refreshment in one of his essays or books. Sometimes just a sentence or two of his sage advice can keep me going.

I describe his writing as refreshing, but don’t get the wrong idea. It is often less like drinking a cool glass of water and more like a splash of cold water in the face. (And don’t we all need a spiritual kick in the pants sometimes?) And yet he always seems to “bind up the bones he has broken” with an encouraging word.

I’ve heard some complain that Tozer’s writing is too strong and harsh, but I am reminded that the apostle Paul was accused of the same thing. Seems to me that Tozer had that unique capacity to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”!

James Snyder, in the authorized biography, The Life of A.W. Tozer: In Pursuit of God, includes a full chapter on Tozer’s practices as a writer. There is a lot we can learn from him, especially in his example of striving for excellence and setting high standards for himself. He once turned down an offer from one of the major publishers of his day to publish a collection of his editorials, because he felt they needed to be rewritten, and he didn’t have time to do it. (He later carved out the time to compile and reedit several volumes of essays.) He also never allowed “transcripts” of his sermons to be published (a common practice among preachers today), because, he said, preaching and writing are decidedly different.

Tozer felt that writing a book was an important task, and he urged Christian authors to get their marching orders from God. “The only book that should ever be written is one that flows up from the heart, forced out by the inward pressure,” he said. “Don’t write a book unless you just have to.” When invited to speak to a group of Christian writers, he surprised the group by delivering a strong argument against popular Christian fiction, saying that it tended to imitate the world and sought only to entertain. The result, he concluded, was fiction that was “unrealistic, affected and false.” What would he think of today’s Christian fiction, I wonder?

I don’t think Tozer was necessarily against fiction, because his writings are peppered with quotes from and admiring comments about the fictional works of Shakespeare, among others. His concern and criticism was reserved for the shallow, simplistic and trite religious drivel being cranked out by some Christian publishers, to slavishly follow the lead of the shallow, simplistic and trite secular drivel being cranked out by secular publishing houses. Besides, Tozer was writing sixty years ago. I believe that today we are seeing Christian fiction produced that is imaginative, original, and profound — along with a lot of imitative drivel!

Tozer argued that the only way to produce material of real depth and spiritual insight, which focused on the eternal rather than the superficial and trivial, was to begin with disciplined Bible study and prayer. He followed this up with good research and with careful wording, often writing and rewriting sentences over and over to keep out the excess verbiage and vague phraseology. “Hard writing makes for easy reading,” he often said.

If there is one supreme thing that Tozer taught me about writing (as well as all aspects of my Christian life), it is simply this: watch your motives. Whenever we start thinking of developing our reputations or making big money through Christian writing, we can be sure that real ministry is going to get lost in the shuffle. Besides, if you want to make big money, forget Christian writing; dig ditches — it pays better!

May 4

How’s Your Heart?

I’m in the midst of editing a new edition of Roy Hession’s autobiography, and he is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.

Hession, you may recall, is the author of that classic book on the deeper Christian life, The Calvary Road. The book was the distillation of things he learned from the East Africa revival in the mid-20th century.  But in his autobiography, My Calvary Road, Hession tells how he came to a personal understanding of a life of deeper repentance and transparency. But he doesn’t stop there.

In a later chapter of the book, Hession confesses that he and his colleagues had allowed the concepts learned in the revival to become a formula, and that it took an East African brother to recognize it and call Hession’s group to repent of allowing anything but Jesus to be their central focus. Again, he doesn’t stop there.

What does this have to do with writing, you may ask? That is what impressed me so much. Hession’s book was a best-seller at the time, and this African evangelist had the nerve (or perhaps I should say, the spiritual discernment) to preach against it!

Well, he didn’t exactly preach against the book, but he did see it as a possible source from which people could construe a legalistic formula: “Do this and you’ll have revival.” And the African brother also saw The Calvary Road as a potential idol, something that could take the place of Christ: “It is not The Calvary Road that is central, but Jesus is central,” he said. Did Hession try to defend himself and his book? No — he accepted the rebuke, and repented of letting something other than Christ become his central focus.

Can you and I be in danger of doing this with our own writings? I think it’s obvious that it is almost inevitable, unless we take heed to always keep our eyes on Jesus. Lord, create in us a clean heart, and renew in us a right spirit!

April 30

The Book Is In!

Friends, I hold in my hand my first copy of Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract. If you will indulge me a brief pause in posting writing tips, I need to share what a good feeling this is!

I’ve published several other books, and yet the thrill never gets old: when you actually hold in your hand the first copy off the press, it’s a sense of accomplishment that just can’t be beat. I will warn you, however: whether it’s your first or your 500th book, there will be a small disappointment, a bit of a letdown. You will immediately start to second-guess your decisions on the content, structure, etc. You will  start asking, “Why didn’t I put this or that into the book?”

We have to trust in the sovereignty of God at times like this, that He has superintended over our writing and allowed only those things in the book He wanted to be there.  We also need to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world, and nothing we create will be perfect. Besides, if you find yourself thinking of more things to say on the topic of your book, maybe the Lord is telling you that these valuable additions belong in your next book!

Well, it looks like I gave you a writing tip, after all — can’t help it, I guess; I’m a chronic advice-giver!

If you want to buy the book (and I sure hope you do!), it’s now available on Amazon:

If you get the book and find it useful, please drop me a line in the blog comments and let me know.