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Jesus Creed

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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