Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Every once in a while, we talk about writing on the podcast. Several emails over the years have asked if you would coach aspiring writers, Pastor John. Obviously, many Christian writers gravitate to you as a master of the craft. That’s why, over the years, APJ episodes have covered the calling to write, how to write poems and write biographies, even down into the details of grammar and punctuation, on the no-nos of ghostwriting, and then (most popular of all) on productivity — how it is that you create so many books and sermons and articles and APJ episodes and all that, with advice for how all Christian creators can maximize their own output. All those topics have been well covered in the past, as you can see in my summary in the new APJ book on pages 411–16.

But we’ve never gotten down into the weeds of how to write a sentence. “Sentences change lives” — you’ve said that before on the podcast. But from your perspective, what makes a great, edifying sentence? How do you write and rewrite sentences like this? And what would be your five (or so) pieces of advice for crafting edifying prose, beyond all that we’ve already covered on the podcast — something relevant for book authors and for Christians who just want to send an edifying text message? What would you say?

I start with the conviction that our words, whether spoken or written, really matter. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). That’s powerful. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 10:11). How many times have I prayed, “O God, for my children, for my wife, for my church, for my books, for my podcast, make my mouth a fountain of life.” Or as James says, the tongue is a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze with destructive power (James 3:5–6). So, I start there. This is serious. I take all my speech seriously and all my writing seriously.

And I thank God that he has spoken. He has used human language to communicate himself and to communicate how to communicate. So, when I ask, “What’s a good sentence?” I mean, “What does God have to say about a sentence?” and “Is it good in view of his word?”

Here are my eight marks of a good sentence.

1. True

A good sentence is true. It communicates what accords with reality; that is, it helps people know what is and what ought to be. This is because God himself “never lies” (Titus 1:2). He’s a “God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16). He has given us “the Spirit of truth” (John 16:13). Christians are people of truth. We speak and write true sentences.

2. Clear

A good sentence is clear. It does not indulge in deception or vagueness. It does not settle for undefined ambiguities that encourage people — like so many public figures encourage people — to believe contrary things while they affirm your sentence. One person reads and says, “Oh, it means this,” and the other says, “It means this,” and both of them have a good foothold because you’ve set it up that way. That’s not a Christian way to write.

Clarity stands in the service of truth. It seeks to help people get the clearest idea of what you believe and are trying to communicate. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:2, “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” That is a beautiful goal for every Christian writer and speaker.

And just a little qualification here: there is a place for intentional ambiguity at times. For example, if a four-year-old asks about some sexual scene in the Bible, a wise parent finds an appropriate circumlocution appropriate to the age, not for the sake of deception but for the sake of helpfulness.

“A true sentence says what accords with the facts, and an authentic sentence says what accords with your heart.”

And there are certain kinds of poetic effort and moments in communication, if you’re writing poems or just want to be poetic in your speech, where truth can actually be served by coming at a reality in a slanted way rather than a direct way, which is not intended to create confusion but to illuminate reality. A whole other thing we could talk about is the appropriate place of slant or planned double entendres or ambiguities. We want to help people toward right thinking and right feeling. And it might be that that kind of speech now and then will do that.

3. Authentic

A good sentence is authentic. The difference between a true sentence and an authentic sentence is that a true sentence says what accords with the facts, and an authentic sentence says what accords with your heart. (And of course, one sentence can do both, should do both.) We are inauthentic to give the impression with our sentences that we are something we aren’t. It’s dishonest; it’s insincere. And the Bible says that Christians are people of sincerity (2 Corinthians 2:17).

4. Thoughtful

A good sentence should be thoughtful. The opposite of thoughtful, as I’m using it, is glib, superficial, frivolous, trifling. Many people treat their language as nothing but clever, lighthearted banter. It fills up sound space. The Bible refers to such people as “empty talkers” (Titus 1:10).

And I don’t mean there’s no place for humor when I say thoughtful. Life is often humorous, inevitably humorous. You cannot walk through days and not see something that is laughable, both positively and negatively. And those situations can be served well with well-placed, thoughtful sentences that might cause a person to buckle over with belly laughter.

But what I’m pleading for is that the bread and butter of our communication have substance in it. That is, people benefit from hearing what we say; there’s some measure of thinking behind our sentences. That’s the goal.

5. Creative

A good sentence is creative. I don’t mean that everybody becomes a poet. I mean that we aspire over a lifetime to grow in our ability to select words and arrange words in fresh and striking ways that have the greatest impact for good on others. When Jesus referred to himself as a thief in the night (Matthew 24:43–44) — are you kidding me? Who would dare? Who would dare to do such a thing? That was risky, striking, creative, utterly memorable. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is . . . the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” That’s a good sentence, right? It not only is a good sentence; it captures the power of the right word at the right time.

“Abstractions and generalizations tend to be boring. Concrete language tends to be arresting.”

Part of being creative is using cadences that sound pleasing. And now I’m shifting gears from choosing the word to choosing the rhythm and the cadence. I once told an audience at our conference here that the title of our conference was “With Calvin in the Theater of God.” It was not “With John Calvin in the Theater of God” because the word “John” ruins the iambic-pentameter cadence. “With Calvin in the Theater of God.” You can’t stick “John” in there. It wrecks the sound.

And a lot of people think, Why in the world . . . ? No, no, no. Pastors, talkers, you should give thought to whether your sentences have cadences, rhythms that are pleasing to the ear. So, there are ten syllables, five beats in that sentence or that title, and it just wrecks it to put “John” in there. It doesn’t work. When you get a feel for cadences and what sounds pleasing, you don’t even have to think about it anymore. Over time, if you school yourself in trying to be thoughtful in your rhythms and cadences so that they sound pleasing, then it will become natural.

Part of being creative, again, is concreteness. Generalizations and abstractions are boring. They’re not as effective as particularities and specifics and concreteness. For example, say “peach”; say “Georgia peach” rather than “fruit.” Say “dog” rather than “animal,” “Dusty” rather than “dog.” Say “rain” rather than “weather.” Say “Neptune” rather than “planet.” Say “basketball” rather than “sports.” Say “bacon” rather than “breakfast.” Say “brown, woolen, pullover sweater” rather than “clothing.” Say “rusty socket wrench on the oily bench” rather than “tool over there in the corner.” Say “John and David” rather than “friends.”

Abstractions and generalizations tend to be boring. Concrete language tends to be arresting. When Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” I take him to mean — at least partly — that our speech should not be bland and tasteless.

6. Well-Timed

A good sentence is well-timed. Proverbs 25:20: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” That’s another good sentence. It’s just full of concrete language. Take off a coat on a cold day. Put vinegar on soda, and it goes sizzle, sizzle, sizzle — makes a little smoke. And even more specifically, Proverbs 15:23 says, “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” So, timing really matters.

7. Clean

A good sentence is clean. The apostle Paul said, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place [for the Christian], but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). Thankful hearts don’t speak or write dirty sentences. Our sentences do not have to be sinful in order to take sin seriously. There are powerful and creative ways to speak of the corruption and wickedness of the world without participating in it.

8. Loving to People, Glorifying to God

Finally, number eight — and I would add that this casts a net over all seven of the others — the aim of the good sentence is to love people and glorify God. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And I think that would mean, “Whether you eat or drink or write sentences, do all to the glory of God.” And in addition to that, Paul says, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). We want people to be helped. We want to help people toward their eternal happiness, and we want to make God look great. That’s what good sentences are for.

That’s good. It seems like your poetry training also trained your ear for cadence in prose. Is that true?

I think it is, yes. And I think it’s good that everybody just has a little bit of exposure to that kind of language where the author, a poet, has given serious thought to the cadences. And a lot of modern poetry doesn’t work at that.

“The aim of the good sentence is to love people and glorify God.”

So, you’ve got to go back a few centuries to see how it’s done, because those guys from three hundred years ago, they didn’t do that because it was boring. Alexander Pope wrote the way he wrote in iambic tetrameter and these couplets — page after page, like hundreds of lines — because it was being eaten up. People read it. People don’t read poetry today, but they did in those days.

A lost art that helps us with prose.

I think so.