Piper’s Six-Stage Process for Writing Books
John Piper has written over fifty books. So how does he do it? It’s a question I would love to ask you today, Pastor John. I don’t know if it’s a process you have articulated or not. I don’t recall hearing it. So I’d love to hear about the process you use to write your books, and I doubt I’m alone here. Assuming that every book (I’m sure) is a little different, what are some common stages you go through in writing your books?
Explaining the Intuitive
I do most of what I do intuitively without following any regimen learned from a book or from anybody else or that I have formulated in my head. But when people ask me questions like this and I step outside my head, I see that I do have a process.
“I think God has to break through, or we just give up.”
There are processes that recur over and over again — both in writing books or writing a poem. Let me talk about the creation of a book, not the creation of a poem. Those are very different creative processes. We could do poetry at another time if anybody cares about that. (Not many people care about poetry these days as much as I do.)
I have six steps that I’ll mention that I pass through in writing a book.
1. Get an Idea
First, a seed thought or a seed idea is sown in my mind, usually by something I’m reading or something I’m hearing. This happens either positively, because I so want to dig into that seed and flesh it out, or negatively, because I hear something or I read something I so dislike that I want to give a beautiful alternative view of reality. That’s the seed.
For example, the seed thought for The Pleasures of God was while I was reading Henry Scougal’s little book The Life of God in the Soul of Man. I read this sentence: “The worth and excellency of the soul is to be measured by the object of its love.”
That was like a lightning bolt into my brain. When I read that, the thought sprang up, “Is that true for God — that the excellency of God’s soul is to be measured by the object of his love? Could I present a fresh picture of the worth and excellency of God by focusing on what he loves?”
The kind of love that Scougal is talking about is not agape love towards your enemies in spite of how disgusting they are. It was a delighting, affectionate sense of something you find pleasing. What does God find pleasing? What does he delight to do? The book was born.
The seed for Future Grace was the thought nobody sins out of duty. We sin because sin makes promises to us. To the degree that we find those promises compelling and attractive and winsome and desirable, we will sin. The key to killing sin is severing its root by the power of a superior promise.
The book was born, all four hundred pages of it, from that reality: kill sin by the power of a superior promise, because nobody sins out of duty. They sin because they’re falling in love with the promise that sin is lying to them about.
2. Gather Material
Second is the gathering step. Here, I simply throw things into a big electronic file. I just gather and gather and gather, and just throw whatever I find in there.
“I try to avoid familiar ways of saying things. I am always trying to describe glorious reality in fresh ways.”
It’s amazing what you can do with search engines in Microsoft Word. It can help you find your stuff and organize it. So, when I gather this information, I’m not worrying about any kind of sequence or order. I’m just throwing stuff in a file. This is gathering — filling up a barn with all kinds of hay.
For example, when I wrote What Jesus Demands From the World, the seed thought was Matthew 28:20, which says that we are to teach the nations to observe everything Jesus commanded. I thought, “Where’s a book that does that — a book that helps a missionary teach his disciples everything Jesus commanded and how to observe it?”
I took several weeks, read through all four Gospels, and cut and pasted all the imperatives and all the implied imperatives into one document — hundreds and hundreds of imperatives. I think there were about five hundred entries in that file.
It looked hopelessly daunting. I just stared at it for days, thinking, “What in the world will I ever do with this?” Everything Jesus commanded is what has been given to us, and we’re supposed to teach it to the nations. That was the gathering step.
3. Create a Structure
The third step is praying and reading and thinking and doodling on pieces of paper toward a conception of structure: What in the world am I going to do with hundreds and hundreds of imperatives from the Gospels? How will that come into any semblance of order or structure or coherence? How is it to be presented? How will I turn that into a book — a readable, organized, sequential book?
Frankly, I think this is, at least for me, the hardest step in writing. I think it’s the step that kills most writing projects and kills most writers. It simply looks impossible. It looks too big, too complex, too confused.
The reason for that is that we are staring at something that doesn’t exist. It’s like a painter staring at a palette of colors and a blank sheet of paper with a view to creating a scene. He hasn’t even made up his mind whether it’s going to be a scene of an ocean or a mountain or a meadow or an urban scene.
After days and days of praying and thinking and doodling on a piece of paper by drawing lines among all the ideas — my papers look ridiculous; they just look like messes, but they work for me — what emerged from the massive material of What Jesus Demands From the World is that many of these imperatives fall into groupings. I wound up structuring the book in fifty short chapters, which consist of various groupings so that everything could be covered. All that came from mind-breaking thinking, staring, doodling, and especially praying.
I think God has to break through, or we just give up.
4. Just Write
Step number four, just start writing anywhere. It may be the middle of the book. It may be the conclusion. It may be the introduction. It may turn out that you will throw it away the next day, but many projects go unfinished because writers wait and wait and wait and wait until they have a clear enough conception in their head of what they’re going to say, at least several pages worth, before they start typing away.
That’s hopeless. I just would find that utterly hopeless. I generally find that it’s helpful to write what I’m trying to do in the book. As I write, it dramatically and amazingly takes shape in that moment, which I’ll mention last.
5. Avoid Ruts
Number five, as I begin to write, I try to avoid falling into worn-out jargon and into familiar ways of saying things. I am always trying to describe and explain glorious reality in fresh and compelling ways.
6. Life of Its Own
Now, here’s the last step. It’s the most amazing step to me. Actually, the one that gives me the breakthrough into conception is amazing. But this one feels even more amazing to me — a kind of mystery.
In the process, the book takes on a life of its own. I mean, as God enables us, ideas start coming from the very writing itself, ideas that we did not have before we began to write. This is the most mysterious and wonderful part of the creative process.
The very act of trying to make something clear brings deeper and clearer insight into the reality. This is why it would be a mistake, a deadly mistake, to wait until you have clarity on everything before you start writing. The sight comes through the writing.
This is why I can never predict ahead of time how long a book is going to be or how it will be organized. Whatever ideas I got at the conceptual stage may be turned upside down. It may be just dramatically different as the book takes on a life of its own as I do the writing.
That’s a glimpse into the six steps that have brought most of my books into being.
- Birth of a seed idea.
- Gathering of lots and lots of material with little care to order and sequence.
- Praying and thinking and doodling toward a conceptual structure.
- Starting to write anywhere, just to get going.
- Aiming at avoiding being trite or using worn-out jargon, but aiming at fresh, compelling ways of saying truth.
- Watching the book take on a life of its own as the writing itself becomes a way of seeing.