by Elisabeth Elliot
(a few notes to an inquirer about writing)
The best way to begin writing is to begin writing. One method is to start a journal. Not a diary which must be written in daily, but a plain, blank notebook in which you may write as much or as little as you choose, and only when you have something to say. I have kept journals since I was about sixteen. It is one way of forcing yourself to articulate lessons learned, prayers, experiences, descriptions of people, places, events.
The second very important exercise is to read books. Not just good books. Great ones. Observe what it is that makes them interesting. We find ourselves mirrored in great literature. We experience the shock of recognition. “That’s it! That’s exactly what I felt/thought/meant/wanted to say!” Great books are “an axe to the frozen sea within us,” Kafka said.
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A few rules for writing:
- Write about something you know very well.
- Don’t tell me, show me. In other words, don’t say “It was a beautiful house.” Describe the house so that I can see for myself that it’s beautiful. Don’t say “She was a nasty woman.” Describe her. Let me draw my own conclusions.
- Tell it straight. Hemingway practiced eliminating adjectives. If you can do that and still make it interesting, your prose will be vigorous.
- Aim at authenticity, never at style, originality, or “creativity.”
- Make it simple.
- Make it clear.
- Learn to handle the English language. The best help for this is Strunk’s The Elements of Style, a perfect gem of a little book, indispensable for all of us.
- Read what you’ve written out loud. How does it sound?
- Avoid sentimentality. Study Matthew 27:28-36. Make a list of the active verbs. Is this a powerful scene? What makes it so?
- Delete every word that has no real work to do.
A word about the process of gathering material.
A writer’s “field” is the whole universe. Everywhere you go, everything you do or see, is the raw material. Make notes. As you find yourself thinking more and more about a particular subject, drop the notes into file folders labeled with broad topics. One of these days that folder may turn into a book, or, before you tackle a book, why not have a go at an article for your local paper, church paper, or a magazine?
A word about being a writer.
One final word: don’t be a writer if you can get out of it! It’s a solitary job, sometimes a rather lonely one (who’s listening? you say), and it requires relentless self-discipline. The world is not waiting with baited breath for what you turn out. A writer has to be some kind of nut to stick with it. But if, like the psalmist, you say, “My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned,” then perhaps you will have to write.
Republished with Permission. All Rights Reserved.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography