Advice to Aspiring Writers
I have never taught a course in journalism. I’ve never even taken a class in journalism. In spite of this obvious lack of formal training (from which I certainly could have benefited), I have enjoyed more success than has been deserved in the field of religious journalism. I have authored more than five hundred articles that have been published in a variety of papers (within the church and beyond). I have written a number of books and tracts. Some of these have been translated into other languages and have gone around the world. I have been amazed, and quite humbled, that God has so wonderfully used such a meager talent to his glory. I say all of this, not to boast—for there is nothing of which to boast—but merely to establish my credibility, in some minute measure, for what I am about to say to young men and women who might desire to serve their Creator more extensively through the medium of the written word.
I have learned whatever I know simply by reflecting carefully upon the style and content of those who have influenced me most as I have poured over their words on paper. Out of the restoration heritage I was significantly influenced by J. W. McGarvey and Moses E. Lard. McGarvey was scholarly, yet he was a lucid teacher; Lard had a flare with words that soared.
Of a later period, I was impressed by the writing talent of Harry Rimmer. Though Rimmer was a denominationalist—and so, of course, I disagreed with a number of his doctrinal positions—he ignited my interest in apologetics. He wrote in a way that one almost felt as if he knew him.
Then there was R. C. Foster of the Christian Church; his Studies in the Life of Christ I consider to be the best thing, apart from the New Testament itself, that I’ve ever read on the ministry of the Savior. I never cease to be thrilled, no matter how many times I read from that volume.
Finally, I cannot neglect mentioning Guy N. Woods. I think he was the most elegant writer among New Testament Christians in this generation. He was thorough, and yet so stylish. These, and many others, have been my mentors.
If I have learned anything in more than a third of a century of writing—anything worthy of passing along to some aspiring journalist who might be interested—I think I would emphasize the following points.
(1) As you prepare to write, do your homework well. Do not put words down just to see what you are thinking. Remember, the spoken word soon evaporates into the air (unless recorded), but the printed word can linger for decades. Therefore, research your topic carefully. Reflect upon it critically at length before submitting it for publication. Rework it. Ask yourself: will this article have enduring merit?
(2) Do not hesitate to give credit for the source of your thoughts. This accomplishes two things. It points the serious student to other writings where more exhaustive information may be obtained. I appreciate those authors who have directed my attention beyond themselves to supplementary depositories of knowledge. It reveals humility.
Additionally, references give some credibility to your study efforts. Everyone knows that no person is an absolutely independent thinker; no one is the author of all his instructive thoughts. I have read the articles of some brethren for years wherein I do not recall ever having seen a reference or footnote being given which documents their study. I never quite know what to make of this; and then again, maybe I do.
In this connection, let me offer a word of caution. Do not use extensive quotations from others without giving appropriate credit. This practice is known as plagiarism. Plagiarism is literary theft. I have observed some writers quote line after line—even consecutive paragraphs—from other authors with no credit given whatever. Or, sometimes significant portions of a writer’s material will be “borrowed”—word-for-word with no quotation marks—but with some sort of generic acknowledgment added at the end. Literary “plastic surgery” is unethical. One never detracts from his own scholarship by giving proper acknowledgment to those from whom he has learned.
(3) Learn to write with clarity. I truly believe that there are some writers who operate under the illusion that if the average person can understand what is said, the author will not be considered a “scholar.” Accordingly, with an ambition to impress (though one may be wholly unaware of what is driving him), some will load up their articles with technical jargon and “scholarly” ambiguity. When the common person reads the material, the impression may be: “This fellow is certainly smart. I don’t understand a word he wrote, but he must be brilliant!” It is significant to me that J. W. McGarvey was once described by the London Times as the greatest Bible scholar on either side of the Atlantic. Yet, though he wrote on some weighty topics, his articles are easy to comprehend. I am afraid that in some of our scholastic circles today, McGarvey would be considered as a sort of “Mickey Mouse” writer (as indeed this writer has been characterized). But his remarkable influence will endure long after the obscurantists have faded.
(4) Learn to write on a variety of themes. Compose pieces on Christian evidences to strengthen the faith of your readers. Write good expository articles that will open up the wonders of God’s Word to sincere students. Address doctrinal issues. The church desperately needs to be reminded of foundation truths. When the circumstances warrant it, deal with the advocates of error, but do so in a Christian way. Explore the pleasures of devotional journalism as you help others draw closer to God. Do some writing in practical areas, always remembering that if we only teach theoretically, but never show how to implement the instruction, we have accomplished little.
(5) Attempt to control emotion in your articles. There are some who could not compose a piece if the “exclamation point” was inoperable on their keyboard. There is a time and place for boldness and forceful language. Anyone who thinks that all Christian journalism must partake of the antiseptic aura of dispassionate intellectual discourse, and that of total detachment, has not analyzed the literature of the Bible. I was once criticized for being overly volatile because I referred to some skeptical writers as “infidels.” Supposedly, the use of this word is too emotive. Frankly, that is extreme. On the other hand, some writers spew venom with virtually every sentence. I have read articles where the review of an antagonist’s arguments will contain ridicule of physical appearance, etc. This sort of thing is out of place, and it reveals more about the author than any logic he may employ.
(6) The writer must develop a tough skin. Once you commit your thoughts to print, you become open game for a variety of critics—and perhaps rightly so. But one must learn which critics to value, and which to ignore. A good critic can be your best friend. He or she can help you eliminate your mistakes and improve your abilities. On the other hand, there are professional critics, who, disturbed at something you have written, will virtually demand that you give them ongoing time to engage in meaningless dialogue. The writer will have to make discriminatory judgments.
The influence of the printed message cannot be overstated. If I may be permitted a couple of personal examples:
- A missionary once told me that he encountered a Christian man in a remote village of Mexico who had been led to the truth by reading one of my tracts.
- I once was lecturing in New Zealand when a gentleman approached me following the service. Though not a Christian, he had encountered some of my material when he lived in Singapore, and, seeing my name in the newspaper, came to hear the gospel during my meeting.
- I once received a letter from a Buddhist monastery in the Far East; a priest had read one of my articles and wanted to discuss some religious matters with its author.
And so, I encourage young men and women to write. It will cultivate rewarding personal discipline. It will assist you in refining your thoughts. It will give you a depository of information from which to draw as you attempt to teach others. Finally, it will extend your influence far beyond your earthly days.