- Have something worth saying and say it. Reagan/Bush speech writer Peggy Noonan, in her book Strictly Speaking, notes that fancy words in a speech fail to move people. What moves them is the logic. Consider this sentence: “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev.” Simple English. Yet the logic behind it carries heavy moral force, as it suggests walls belong somewhere other than through the heart of a city. In writing for Christian ministry, your subject relates to the best news in the world. So you of all people have something worth saying. Have you clearly stated your proposition? Can you back it up? Strive for clarity.
- Show your logic. To help communicate your logic, your structure needs to show. Do you reveal your outline through your central propositions, your headings, your subheadings, and your overall organization? Do readers see the logic in your conclusion? Preferably you will write your outline first and build your research around it. But even if you have already written something without an outline, you can reveal the structure by adding some of the “skeleton” to your final version.
- Craft strong transitions. Your transitions help your ideas flow. Between sections, you might write, “While X establishes the ABC view, Y suggests otherwise.” Between paragraphs, you might need only a word such as “However,” “Similarly,” or “Nevertheless.” Within paragraphs, short words or phrases also work: Conversely, K says…. And L agrees…. But some think otherwise…. The thin but expensive book They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing can help you here.
- Recognize that most of writing is rewriting. Many people get writers’ block because they try to write the first draft perfectly. So go ahead and write that super lousy first draft. (No one else has to see it.) Then go back and clean it up. And clean it up some more. And more. Many writers go through six or more drafts before they have a final copy. I do seven. Expect to revise a lot.
- Rely on active voice. I was hit; a car hit me. Passive voice; active voice. Passive voice hides the one doing the action. (Academic writing is notorious for this, hence the description of academic work as often being “a cure for insomnia”). MS Word provides a tool for flagging most passives, and—in many cases—your word processing software will even offer alternatives. As part of the revision process, identify uses of passive voice and flip them to active whenever possible. Aim to limit your passive voice constructions to 5 percent or less of your work.
- Check your spelling. Again, your software can flag some spelling errors. In MSWord, check to see if you have red underlining beneath a word, which tells you the MS dictionary lacks the word you’ve chosen. But also, verify the names of scholars quoted, books cited, and organizations. Pay close attention. NIH is National Institutes of Health—plural. The nineteenth-century clergyman who wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was Phillips Brooks, not Philip Brooks. If you stink at spelling, barter for an exchange of some kind with a friend who spells well. Reading your work one-word-at-a-time backwards can help, too.
- Check your grammar. You can find checklists online for common grammatical mistakes. Reading your work aloud can help you hear mistakes, too. This one trips up my students a lot: the misplaced modifier. An example? “Growing up, Little Women was our favorite.” The book isn’t growing up—they were. The word after the comma should be what the intro phrase describes. In this case: Growing up, we loved Little Women.
- Check your punctuation. Make sure you have the latest style guide, because punctuation can vary depending on guides and organizations. Most magazines use the serial comma: “We need bread, peanut butter, and jelly.” Yet your journalism teacher probably had you write, “We have bread, peanut butter and jelly.” No serial comma. That’s because newspapers go by the AP style guide, which differs a lot from Kate Turabian’s guide/Chicago Manual of Style/magazine writing/most web writing. Now then, because you are writing in the USA, you might get confused about when that pesky period goes inside the quotation marks. So I’ll remind you: In the US, it always goes inside: “Roll it, and pat it, and mark it with a ‘b.’” In the UK, you would write, “Roll it, and pat it, and mark it with a ‘b’”. As with colour and color, some rules vary according to what side of the pond you live on. And while you’re at it, only one space after a period unless using an old-fashioned typewriter. If you have a habit of using two spaces, no worries. Just find-and-replace two spaces and correct that to use only one as part of editing.
- Follow quotes with summaries or explanations. Avoid ending a paragraph, or “landing,” with someone else’s quote, especially in academic writing. Before moving on, provide a summary or transition statement in your own words. This is your argument, not someone else’s.
- “Do unto others….” Loving others well means giving credit where credit is due, recognizing how offended you would feel if others passed off your research as their own. It’s dishonest to plagiarize, but it’s also completely unloving. Also, if you encounter an opinion with which you disagree, represent that person’s ideas accurately and keep the tone respectful. Ask yourself, “If I met this person for lunch tomorrow and knew he or she had read this, how awkward would I feel?”
Also, part of loving others and reaching the widest-possible audience is using gender-inclusive language. The following statement, with which I heartily agree, is adapted from the syllabus of one of my colleagues: “All written submissions should strive to use male/female-inclusive language. As a gospel-shaped, gospel-centered community of learning, we have compelling reasons to think, write, and speak in such a way as to ensure that none are either intentionally or inadvertently excluded by our use of language. Consider using ‘humans,’ ‘persons,’ ‘humanity,’ or ‘humankind”’ rather than ‘man’ or ‘men’ when referring to humans in general. Consider alternating between the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ as generic pronouns or substituting the use of the plural (‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their’) when appropriate.
You have something worth saying—words of life and healing. Strive to say them well.
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