Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


On Writing: Some Suggestions

posted by xscot mcknight

The following is a chunk of an address I gave to our Faculty. The address was called “The Professor as Scholar,” and some of it was devoted to some ideas about writing. Here are some of those suggestions.

First, writing is not about “technique” or “method” but about “identity”. We write because of who we are: scholars need to get it down and need to express themselves. F.F. Bruce liked to call this need “scribbler’s itch” (Latin: cacoethes scribendi ).

Second, to paraphrase our late Mayor Daley, write early and write often . I’m not talking about the time of the day; I’m talking about the need to begin your career, or start now, with writing. As soon as you have your thesis in mind, start getting down; you can weave your secondary writing into your own garment – and when it is your own garment it is both clearer in your mind and easier to manage.

Third, when you want to submit a ms to a publisher, get endorsements , both from the prominents in that field of study and from those who have already published with that publisher. You might be surprised how effective this can be.

Fourth, learn to write, to use a phrase from Anne Lamott, “bird by bird” – that is: don’t try to write a book all at once. Divide the whole project into small projects and seek to achieve those one day at a time. If you’re writing about the Civil War, you can’t write about the whole history all at once, but you can describe this battlefield in one day, or survey the general’s plans for that day, etc.. It is very important to divide your big project into small projects that can be accomplished day by day or no more than week by week. So, I begin the day and think about how much I will try to write that day.

Fifth, end each day’s writing by beginning the next day’s writing. This frequently cuts down on shiftlessness, lethargy, and late starts; it also enables quick starts and a “I can’t wait to get back to it” attitude. Thus, if today I am writing a review of a book today but tomorrow I have to study the baptism of Jesus as a prophetic action, then when I am done with the review I need to look briefly at the baptism of Jesus, see what I will need to examine and see what I might need to read. That way when I get up I don’t have any wondering about what I will be doing when I sit at my desk. We all know how hard it is to begin some days – ending the day by beginning the next day is the best thing we can do to make beginnings easier.

Sixth, maintain a “list of projects” and folders for each item on your desk and keep in mind what’s coming next.That way if something crosses my mind I stick it into a folder and when I begin serious work I have some ideas already ticking.

Seventh, strike a balance between requests and self-initiated projects. It is easy to fall into the trap of writing only what you are asked to write: a chapter in a book here, a journal article there, editing a series of essays, etc.. But it is also unfair to yourself to be only writing that sort of stuff: you have ideas of your own and you need to write those up as well. The most satisfying projects are ones you dream up yourself and these creative impulses are squelched if you don’t air them.

Eighth, meet deadlines! I have edited a few books, one of which had hundreds of essays and contributors, and I can tell you the problems that occur when authors agree to deadlines (which are almost always extendable but which are set so extenders may get their wishes) and don’t meet them. Not only is the book delayed but other authors are annoyed by what you are doing – and when they find out that you were on vacation they might never want to participate with you again. If you aren’t going to meet a deadline, and know it, tell the editor. And along with this comes reality: you need to have realistic expectations of the time you need. I say this especially for young authors: publishers know which authors meet deadlines and which don’t. And they want authors who meet the deadlines.

Ninth, read the best books on writing, like E.B. White’s Elements of Style , 82 pages of clear conviction, and W. Zinsser’s On Writing Well , even though I object to the dirty tricks their publishers have played in bringing out too many new editions of what was original genius. Also, read good writers in your field – learn from them but don’t imitate them slavishly. Zinsser always reads some of White before he writes; others find it best to operate as did Hemingway, with no one else’s style cluttering up yours. It is amazing to me that, just as many professors don’t read about teaching so many also do not read about writing. Here are some names of very good writers: Joseph Epstein, Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Mark Twain’s essays and letters, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis — I nearly always begin my day of writing by reading 2-3 pages of Mere Christianity, Hemingway, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, Mary O’Connor, Wendell Berry, Nancy Mairs, Joan Didion, Brian Doyle, Alan Jacobs. Again, the best way to learn to write is to read good writers and imitate them a bit.



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Kerry Doyal

posted August 21, 2005 at 7:15 am


… and, to tag on to your final thot, many of us get similar stimulation from one Scot Mcnight. Thanks for this post.



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted August 21, 2005 at 10:42 am


Scot,Very practical. I also appreciate that you acknowledge that your suggestions will work better for some than others.I am currently avoiding moving from note taking to beginning my next book, as I am being struck with the very real (though very silly) fear of starting.Peace,Jamie



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john

posted August 21, 2005 at 12:01 pm


Thanks for these thoughts. A lot of these seem like common sense, but I’ve never thought of most of them, and apprciate you sharing wisdom fro myour experience. I especially like the idea of starting the next day of writing before you finish for the day. Seems so counterintuitive (to me, at least!) but it makes so much sense.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 21, 2005 at 1:18 pm


Jamie,The best way to begin is to begin, and not perfectly. Time and writing will ask you to go back and begin again if you need to.



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Orwell61

posted August 21, 2005 at 2:15 pm


Nice post — is there any chance of getting a copy of the full address?Glad to see you mentioned Orwell in your list, too. His “Politics and the English Language” is a wonderful orientation to writing.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 21, 2005 at 3:27 pm


Orwell 61,E-mail me.Scot



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Methodius

posted August 21, 2005 at 4:59 pm


Great post….Could some of the same principles me used for preaching? Listening and reading certain preachers to develop one’s style (not slavishly copying)I love your blog – I usually check it everyday….Brandon



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bobbie

posted August 21, 2005 at 5:42 pm


oh sir, you are generous indeed – thank you!



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted August 21, 2005 at 6:08 pm


Scot,Thanks! I will start tomorrow. Perhaps when its done and when I am looking for endorsements…So, I guess it is back to class for you tomorrow. Blessings on your new school year!Peace,



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john alan turner

posted August 21, 2005 at 10:08 pm


Nine chapters into my first book, and NOW YOU TELL ME?!



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Aly H.

posted August 21, 2005 at 10:13 pm


Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD is a book to go back to again and again, and I’d also (sheepishly) recommend Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Lay your skepticism aside – it’s brilliant and highly entertaining.



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Horace Jeffery Hodges

posted August 22, 2005 at 5:46 am


Good advice. And good to see that other folks like Anne Lamott.I’ve not read Bird by Bird, but the story of her conversion is brilliantly written:http://archive.salon.com/mwt/lamo/1999/02/12lamo.htmlShe’s simply great at essays. I haven’t read her novels, but people seem to like them.Jeffery Hodges* * *



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Bob

posted August 22, 2005 at 9:38 am


Scot, I can’t decide if Stephen King’s book, “On Writing” or “Bird by Bird” is better. King’s has a very working class view of writing, as a trade; it’s a refreshing point of view. I usually my writing improves after reading Bill Bryson.



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adam

posted August 22, 2005 at 10:58 am


thanks for this helpful insight, scot. i’ve recently made the decision to pursue writing more seriously…



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Bob Robinson

posted August 22, 2005 at 1:28 pm


So, First write an entire manuscript,Then get people in the same field to read it and then endorse it,Then submit it to publishers…Is this the brief outline of how to get initially published? Or do you have other ideas?



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Scot McKnight

posted August 22, 2005 at 1:36 pm


Bob,There was a day when having a good ms was all you needed. Sometimes, but not always, you needed an endorsement. Getting endorsements is important today, too, but the most important thing today is what publishers will call “platform.” They want to know “how many will sell” and they determine that by “who you are” and “who you know” and “where you write and speak” and “how many different venues” and “how big.”My advice for someone in your shoes is this: speak at churches, at student events, and at conferences so you can build a platform of possible readers. And keep blogging, because you have things to say on that blog of yours.Publishers invest lots of money into a ms to publish it and publicize it and market it, and they want to know that they’ll make money on it. Can’t blame them for that. But the days are gone when some unknown person could show up with a ms and, just because it is good, get it published and it would sell.Hope this helps.



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eddie

posted August 22, 2005 at 6:51 pm


Scot,Im still an undergraduate, but i do love writing. Right now i think that i focus too much on making my writing aesthetically pleasing. I know this is important, but clarity and content are more so. How much time do you think should be spent on this aspect?



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Stan F.

posted August 23, 2005 at 8:16 am


Scot,This is a great post and will prove helpful to me, even at my writing day job.I had a conference associate superintendent come up to me at our Annual Meeting and tell me he remembers advice I gave to him back in 1992 that if he wanted to be a good writer he had to read good writers. It always is nice to know that something you have said has made a difference. Your blog is doing so on a daily basis.Grace and peaceStan



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Alpha Lim

posted August 24, 2005 at 12:15 am


the advice on how to get started every day was particularly helpful to me. I remember a mattress company used this slogan: “because tomorrow begins tonight.”and the bit about reading some good writers before starting each day–so practical. but then, hidden wisdom always sounds like common sense once it’s heard.thank you!



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TheBlueRaja

posted August 24, 2005 at 5:37 pm


Lovely advice; any passion to write can soon be overwhelmed with feelings of one’s own inadequacy coupled with a lack of any clear instruction on how to get going and improve. Thanks so much for the insight.



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