How to be a better writer

Read until your brain creaks.” At least, that’s the advice that Douglas Wilson offers those wanting to be better writers (HT Justin Taylor). Unpacking this a little, he says:

Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind. These are the trees where the leaves come from.

He then goes on to offer the following seven points.

  1. The first thing is that writers should in fact be voracious readers.
  2. Read widely. Reading shapes your voice, and if you want a wide, experienced voice, you have to get out more.
  3. Read like a reader, and not like someone cramming for a test.
  4. Read like a lover of books, and not like someone who wants to be seen as knowledgable, or well-read, or scholarly.
  5. Pace yourself in your reading. A little bit every day really adds up.
  6. As a general pattern, read quality, and go slumming occasionally to remind yourself why quality matters, and what quality is.
  7. Read boring books on writing mechanics.

First, amen.

Second, a big amen to #2. I realize that this is difficult if you’re in school, or if you have a family, or a job, or a life of any kind. But try to do it anyway. (Note to those of you who are students – there won’t be more time later; there never is.)

Third, I’d add one more. Find someone who writes the way you want to and start reading everything they’ve written. Unless it’s Augustine. That would take too long.

Fourth, without question, #4 is the one that I have the hardest time with. Part of it is, of course, theological pride. But, there’s more to it than that. For some reason, I can sit back and relish a book written by Marilynne Robinson, but many theology books I’ll just skim for things that look important. (Granted, this may be because of how theology books are often written.) Nonetheless, I have a hard time giving myself permission just to enjoy a good theology book. The “tyranny of the urgent” and all that. Tomorrow morning I’m going to grab a well-written theology book and just soak in it for a while.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 2, 2010, in Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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