Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio transcript

Pastor John, you’re coming off a six-week writing leave. Last time you talked to us about what you have learned about the writing process, especially at the conceptual and research level in the early stages of the process. Now talk to us about writing itself. How does that work for you and what lessons can you share with writers from this recent six-week writing leave?

Right. So I have got 15 things that I learned. I shared seven of them last time and we didn’t even get to the point of writing yet. But we dealt with that really frustrating stage — for me anyway — of doodling and trying to conceptualize and trying to organize, and it is a very frustrating time. What gets the breakthrough for me, and it did this time, as it has every time, is number 8:

Number 8. Start writing. I said last time, “Pick one subtopic in the big topic of your book and put down some general ideas underneath it that you might tackle.” And now I am saying, “Start writing on that subtopic.” Under God and his guiding work by the Spirit, the actual process of writing is the most important guide to how you are going to conceive your book. Now I know that sounds backwards to people. The actual process of writing is the most important key to the door of knowing what you think about this topic. People think they get that backwards. The actual process of writing is the most important portal by which new light shines into your mind on a topic.

So you discover by writing. You see by writing. You understand by writing. You conceptualize by writing — you conceptualize the structure of what you are going to do by writing. One of the biggest mistakes people make at every stage is they think that discovery, seeing, understanding, conceptualizing must come before the writing. That is paralyzing. And it fails to see that writing is a revelatory act. It doesn’t just record what you have thought. It is thinking. And it is the most effective way to think, because there it is in front of you and now you are not jumbled when you are three sentences into it. So that is number 8, maybe the most important thing I say.

Number 9. Since new ideas and issues and questions are always coming as you write, keep another file or sheet going to bullet those ideas. So I did that on the computer. As I am writing, I have got underneath this Word document another document called ideas. And I am flipping back and forth all the time jotting down ideas that later could be dealt with because, when I write, my mind just becomes fertile. And until I write, it is one big mess.

Number 10. As you write, by hand or by computer, say out loud what you are writing. This practice will help you write for the ear. Even if readers don’t read your book out loud — and most of them won’t, I know that — most people, not everybody, but most people unconsciously hear your words in their head. That is the way most people read. And you are writing for most people. If those words that you have on paper flow with effective sound and rhythm and pacing and cadence and balance and parallels and images, then the act of reading will be clearer and much more enjoyable. I don’t know any way to write like that without writing out loud. And I talk to guys who are writing sermons all the time, because when they give the sermons or read the sermons I will say, “You don’t talk like that.” You won’t even know what you are doing until you hear yourself doing it. So that is number 10.

Number 11. When you have said all you can on that first subtopic, stop and pick out another subtopic to write on. Make a few idea lists and then get going on that. And don’t worry whether this is going to be chapter 2 or 13. It doesn’t really matter where it is going to fit. Just write what you know next about this issue. And over time the ideas for how to put the pieces together will emerge.

Number 12. You may be three weeks into the project, like me, writing every day before you have a clear sense of what the focus of the book is going to be. For me it was longer than three weeks. It took me almost to the end of six weeks before I gave up on my initial conception. When gave it up, I said, “Okay, this is the book I intended to write. It is not the book I am going to write. I am going to get rid of that idea and do what I am really doing.” That is number 12.

Number 13. Feel free to track down some sources or read a bit about something you are writing about, but beware of this. I am talking about pausing in the writing to do some research. Beware of this. It is a great book killer. Perfectionists rarely write books. They are too busy reading everything. Realize that your book will be one small contribution. Humble yourself. You are not writing the final book. And that is a great liberator. No book says it all, so don’t suspend your writing indefinitely while you research something to have the last word on it. And here I really should put in a qualifier, because I am not talking about major scholarly books. I know that if you are writing a major scholarly book and you are bumping up to an issue that has just got to be dealt with, you may have to spend weeks researching that and figuring that out. I am not talking about that kind of major, scholarly work.

Number 14. As your idea list grows from all that is coming into your head as your write, don’t be paralyzed by focusing on it and saying, “No way will I ever be able to deal with all those issues that are coming to my mind.” Stay focused on what you are writing and then do another topic. I love the image that a big, big, big tree will fall over with chop, chop, chop, chop — a thousand chops. And the focus is, Can I sink the axe in this time just as good as I can sink it? And tomorrow I am sinking it again. The next day I am sinking it again. That tree is going to fall if you have the discipline to keep doing what is in front of you.

Number 15. Expect divine serendipity in answer to your prayers. For example, I happened to listen totally randomly to a podcast by Andrew Walls, a missions scholar at the University of Edinburgh as I was writing the book about the Bible. And he was talking about how Christianity crosses cultures. And in doing so, more of Christ is seen in new cultures than the old culture saw. Therefore, the very spread of Christianity is the revelation of more about Christ in the Word. That just blew me away and it found its way immediately right into the thing I was writing, because it was so relevant for how we know Christ through the Scriptures.

So did I plan that? God planned that. And God has plans for people who are trying to honor his Word, stay true, be faithful, help the Church, advance the mission. So that is what I learned, Tony. Those are my 15.