John Piper is back, coming off a six-week writing leave. And Pastor John, you have written a new book, and I want to talk about what you’ve been writing soon. But first, as a writer, I would love to know what you have learned more generally about the writing process from these past six weeks along, with some lessons writers can maybe learn.
It is a huge gift to have a writing leave. Most writers write in between things, and I get this incredible gift once a year of six to eight weeks or so when I can do nothing but write. And for me the conceptualization stage is the absolute hardest. I tend to quit before I get started. It is so frustrating. But once I am off and running, it is like pushing a car: getting the thing going is hard, but once you get it rolling, then you can probably keep it going by yourself. But you need about six guys to get started with it.
Seven Suggestions for Writers
So I stepped back and asked, What did I learn about that initial process and then the actual writing? And I am assuming here that we are talking about a non-fiction book about a specific topic, and I am assuming that people are writing against the backdrop of ongoing Bible reading and meditation and prayer and participation in a local church.
1. Schedule the time.
Plan a block of time that you can commit to regularly. For me that was every day, six days a week, from about nine in the morning, after devotions and exercise and breakfast — so about nine in the morning until about seven in the evening with maybe a half hour off for lunch.
2. Narrow your topic.
Decide on a general topic that you intend to address. For me that was: I want to write a book about the Bible. And I thought it was a book about how to get from the Bible the treasures of the Bible, and how to live those out. In other words, a how-to book about using the Bible most effectively in your spiritual walk. And I proved to be totally wrong about that. But that should encourage people that you can set out to write something and wind up writing something totally different. So that is number two: pick out the general topic.
3. Pray earnestly.
Pray earnestly, and call upon others to pray. I have a whole prayer team that I keep posted on what I am doing. Pray and have others pray for you. Pray daily, pray hourly over your work, and ask God for motivation. Ask him for perseverance and for insight and creativity, and ask him for competence and truthfulness and faithfulness to the Scriptures. Ask him for a touch from God that will make the book a great honor to Christ and good for the church and an advancement to the global mission of the people of God. That is the way I pray about what I write.
4. Recall what you’ve already written.
Read over what you have already written about the topic. So, for me, that was about thirty sermons that I had written about this topic over the years. And I did not want to take the time to do that, and I didn’t. I skimmed them and looked at their themes because I knew that if I took the time to read all of those, I would just get so bogged down.
And here I know I am assuming that people have written something. And why would I assume that? Well, I am assuming that if there is a topic on which you intend to write a book, you have thought about it. And if you are a writer, thinking about it means you have written down something. It might be in a journal, a blog, an essay, a sermon, a lesson, a notebook. Somewhere you have written about this, or you shouldn’t be intending to write a book about it — not for a long time yet.
So dig all that stuff up. Pull it out of your journals or wherever it is and then pull it all together and read over it. That is number four.
5. Brainstorm what you could include.
As you read that stuff, make an idea list of all sorts of issues that could be addressed in the book. You might be writing this on your computer, or it might be by hand. I will say more about that in just a minute. This will be a completely random list at first. It will just be a mess on your piece of paper. When you have read all your material, brainstorm about what you have got there, and make that list as long as you can. In other words, when you are done reading, keep making ideas and putting them down. So now you have got a page or several pages of just a jumble of ideas that this book might contain.
6. Connect the pieces of your ideation.
Step back and look at that idea list, and use a pencil to draw lines. Now if you put that list on a computer, print it out. I don’t know any way to do what I am talking about here on the computer. I don’t think the technology is there to do this. Print it out, lay it all out in front of you, and tape the papers together if you have to if you have more than one sheet, and start drawing lines between them. Circle them and block them and look for patterns on that jumbled sheet of ideas until you see things kind of falling together. And keep scribbling down new ideas as you do this because every time you start to make a connection, another question and another idea is going to come to your mind.
7. Work on expanding a single subtopic.
Now you have that confusing, random, messy, big, taped-together piece of paper that seems to have no coherence whatsoever except a few jumbled connections that you have circled and drawn arrows to. This is the real discouraging, paralyzing point when you look at it and say, “Good night! How will that ever become a book? How can I ever bring sense out of that or turn that into a book?” That really keeps a lot of people from moving forward.
So here at this point I am saying, take a few minutes and jot down one of the ideas from that sheet that you think you could start writing about. It doesn’t matter whether it becomes a chapter or not; it’s just something you could start writing about. Put that at the top of a piece of paper — that idea, that sentence — and then jot down under it ideas that you might say about that. Don’t take too long doing this — just fifteen minutes. You haven’t even begun to write yet. So I am not talking about weeks of doing this. That would take maybe a day or two depending on how much of your stuff that you have to read.
So that is everything up until writing. I think I will stop here and maybe continue next time on the writing. What lessons did I learn about the actual writing?
Excellent, let’s do that. But one immediate take-away for someone who wants to write a book, but for them it seems like a far-off dream at this point. They should be journaling now, right?
Right. If a person doesn’t have the book on his agenda for tomorrow, but five years out because he is dreaming of something that is just utterly fascinated him, then yes. They should be thinking, and that means writing now. So a journal is one possibility or some kind of idea notebook.
In my early days as a pastor I kept two. I only made two of these and then I stopped, but they were really fruitful. I call them the “sermon garden.” I still have those. They’re ring binders, about fifty to sixty pages each, where I just put idea after idea after idea that came to me in devotions and elsewhere. So, yes, a book comes into being not out of nowhere; it grows in the garden of thinking and ideas.