Writing is risk taking. We bungee jump from a sentence and pray the cord stops short of catastrophe. We day-trade in language, gambling that a hot image will hold up.
Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style
I approach the subject of writing as a writer with a lot of experience but no illusions of grandeur; hopefully no delusions either. My limitations are established as are my abilities. I know when I’ve turned a good phrase and crafted a good argument. I usually know when I should have hit “Trash” instead of “Publish.” My floor is littered with virtual paper-wads.
Many pastors and other church leaders have found another voice—as writers—by which they can expand their Kingdom influence online. Whether personal blogs, church websites, or articles for collaborative websites, many have experienced satisfaction through encouraging and teaching others through the written word.
An editor and writer by trade, this post has been on my mind for a while. This subject was included recent suggestion marathon on Facebook (or, a reasonable facsimile of the subject was).
If you are a pastor or church leader with a burden, passion, or passing interest in writing, I hope you will find these ten keys to being a better writer for an internet audience helpful.
1. Remember your audience.
Who are the primary people you expect to read your work? If it is your church, write for them. If a community of friends with a common interest, write for them. Any internet article could be read by millions, of course, but the reality is most content is read by people we know and their friends. Make sure they understand what you write.
2. Stay on topic.
If you are writing an article on “Jonah’s Experience as Fish Bait” do not veer off into two paragraphs on the Antichrist. Being informative requires focus. (This point is also true of preaching.)
3. Be precise.
Somewhere along the line I came to believe a “more the merrier” approach to words meant better writing. Wrong. Excess wordiness should be avoided. Cut, cut, cut like Jason Voorhees at summer camp. Don’t write, “The car that belonged to Delores was hooked up to a tow truck and hauled away.” Write, “Delores’s car was towed.” Do not use five words when three words are fine, or “in order that” when “so” will suffice.
4. Use periodic sentences of 140-characters or less.
Yes, Twitter. In an 800-word article we can allow for two or three sentences of tweetable length. If you mean to connect with an internet generation this practice is highly recommended.
5. Make paragraphs manageable.
I am not Charles Dickens, and it is unlikely you are, either. If you want to write a sequel to A Tale of Two Cities, complete with a paragraphs that fill half-a-page, go for it. But, do not publish it in the church’s online newsletter.
Online content is largely consumed on mobile devices, often non-continuously. When your reader starts an article while eating breakfast, returns to it while the car is warming, steals a sentence or two at a red light, then finishes in the elevator, short paragraphs help.
6. Keep a thesaurus at hand.
Remembering number 1 (“Remember your audience”) means our language should be accessible to our readers. Do not fill your writing with polysyllabic words for monosyllabic readers. Why should people think, “I think that was good, but I’m not really sure”? That said, it is not necessary to dumb-it-down, either. Using the right words will engage the most people.
One writer suggested using at least one word per article that might drive readers to a dictionary. This makes them put forth at least a little work as a reader, and helps writer and reader build vocabulary—without looking showy. I recently needed a word to describe a slope, or rise on which a person might stand. After a little searching, Roget’s yielded “acclivity,” which I employed. (You can often find a good used thesaurus in Amazon’s marketplace.)
7. Be content with being open-ended at times.
Every article does not have to solve every problem or cover every possible square inch of ground—this one certainly will not. It is fine to leave things unresolved, especially if the subject matter does not find hard-and-fast commands in scripture.
8. Read a book—or three—on the craft of writing.
There are many. Here are four highly-regarded books on the craft of writing:
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
On Writing, Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King)
On Writing Well, William Zinsser (yes, that William…never mind)
Spunk & Bite, Arthur Plotnik
9. Read good writers.
To be a good writer, read good writers. Unless you intend to write only theological tomes for a primarily theological audience, you need to read more than theology books.
There is, perhaps, a “matter of preference” on this point, as some prefer non-fiction over fiction, biography over current events, and so on. But, there are good writers and boring writers in every genre. Find the good ones. Read selections from 100 Best lists to learn why people think those titles are the best.
10. Write, write, write.
As with most things, with enough practice we tend to get better. My own experience has been when I write consistently I write better. When I have long gaps between consistent writing, I lose my “voice” temporarily. The craft of writing crafts the writer who’s willing to learn. Writing more is not a guarantee of writing better, but writing less is a near guarantee of no improvement.
Consistent writing creates an outlet for your thinking, a place for your passion, and exercises your creative muscles. And, just as with preaching, writing can change the lives of an internet audience to the glory of God.