Some thoughts, and some pointers, on being a writer:
Yesterday I posted my 5000th article on CultureWatch. In that piece I tried to explain what I do and why I do it. I mentioned that if I should live for another 15 years or so, I will be able to post my 10,000th piece. As I keep saying, at least it keeps me off the streets! You can see that piece here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/01/09/on-5000/
I realise that most folks do not have it as their main aim in life to write 5000 articles, so there may not be too many readers checking out this piece. But what I am actually seeking to do here is offer some help and insights for those who do like to write and/or do similar sorts of things that I have been doing.
As part of this I want to discuss some of what has gone into this 5000-article milestone. And the first thing to say is this does not just happen overnight. Although the articles are from a period of around 15 years, they are really the result of at least 50 years.
That is, a half century of reading, studying, researching, thinking, reflecting and writing about a whole range of issues is behind all this. Thus if I can whip out a 1400-word article in a half an hour or so, that in large measure is because of those 50 years of activity.
It takes some time, in other words, to be able to get to this place. To gain a wide body of knowledge in various areas is part of it. Knowing how to put these various bits of knowledge together in a coherent package is another. And seeking to bring it all within a solidly biblical worldview is also crucial.
Yes, one may still have to do a whole lot of study, digging and research in particular areas. For example, until recently, there was no such thing as genetic engineering, assisted reproductive technologies, and so on. So to get on top of those kinds of things you need to do a lot of reading, and apply that to older, more established principles that should already be in your memory bank, such as the dignity of persons, the sanctity of life, and so on.
And having a good library is certainly of help here – even imperative. With 7000 volumes, I mostly have what I need at my fingertips. If I need more specialised knowledge and understanding, I can always get more books – or do more research online.
One person, commenting on all these articles which he seems to enjoy reading, said this to me: “Thank you for your hard work, Bill.” I thought that he was both right and wrong. On the one hand, yes, I guess a fair amount of effort has gone into the 7 million words found here. But on the other hand, is it really hard work when you enjoy doing it?
Of course it can depend on the article. Some pieces that I want to be well-researched with a number of important quotes may take me a number of hours or so to finalise. So yes, that takes some time and effort. But it is still enjoyable. The finished product makes it worthwhile, just as the carpenter delights in the finished kitchen cabinets or whatever that he makes.
And for me at least it can be quite fulfilling and satisfying to be able to walk over to a bookcase and pull out the relevant volume that I need as I am writing a piece. I seldom need to go to any external library. Obviously a substantial library like this does involve some sacrifice – certainly financial sacrifice.
And it takes up a whole lot of room in your home – every spare square foot actually. It also requires an understanding spouse and kids to allow for it as well. Sometimes my wife will say I should weed out some of my older books. ‘Heresy,’ I reply. ‘That is like weeding out some of the older children!’
Often a book I may have bought 30, 40 or even 50 years ago will be just what I need when I am writing an article – or book. You never know what will come in handy, so I rarely toss anything out. Yes, there may well be a big problem when I finally move off to that big library in the sky – my family will have to figure out what happens to my library.
A few suggestions for the budding author
As to some practical pointers for the would-be writer, a few general points can be made. One normal recommendation is simply to write a lot – practice makes perfect. The more you write, hopefully the better you will get. Like most things, this is an art that one develops over time.
Related is this: spend time reading great authors. Immerse yourself in good writers, and let their skills rub off on you to some extent. Learn what gifted authors do and how they do it. That is always a useful exercise. Learn how the greats have done it.
Other bits and pieces of advice include this: start saving neat quotes. If you find a great line or thought or paragraph, write it down and save it somewhere – along with the details of where it comes from. I now have many thousands of such quotes saved up in many dozens of different categories. You never know when a good quote will come in handy as you are writing.
Of course much of my advice is mainly for the writer of non-fiction – and that for only some non-fiction writing. If you want to write great articles or books on how to build a jet engine or some other type of technical writing, some of the basic rules still apply: clarity, lucidity, being well laid out, free of typos, etc. And for those of you who prefer writing fiction, you would have to look elsewhere for good advice on how to pen a good novel or romance article, etc.
But some of the points I have made here would apply to all sorts of writing. The main thing is to write a lot. Of course if you want to be a published author (whether books, or magazine articles, or just a blog site) it certainly helps to make sure your grammar and spelling is all correct. Getting a few extra sets of eyes to look at your work is always helpful.
It is amazing how often they will find some little typo that you might have missed. I happen to be blessed in having a few folks who will alert me to any mistakes they have found in my CultureWatch articles, after they have been posted. I can quickly make the changes when they alert me to them.
And I even have one terrific saint in Perth who has not only proof-read a lot of my articles, but she had proofed every single one of them – all 5000! Thanks Annette! So having some friends who can help correct things and give you some style and editorial advice along the way can also be a real help.
There are other matters that arise, such as how to get published and so on. Finding a good publisher for books, or a strategic magazine or website for articles is all part of how to make it as a writer. But those matters may need to be saved for another article.
Suffice it to say that not everyone has the desire, the ability, or the calling to be a writer. Some of you are much better placed at being a musician, doing drama, fixing cars, building computers, or planting gardens. We all have our own abilities and likes.
And for the Christian, we recognise that there are both natural talents as well as God-given gifts. For example, I was writing for a few years (for underground newspapers and the like) before I became a Christian. God had put that ability in me before I was saved. Now of course I use these talents and giftings for Christ and the Kingdom.
So if you find that you like to write, give it a go, or do more of it. Maybe you will just have a very limited audience – say a handful of fans who read your poetry or follow your blogs. Maybe you will go on to become a best-selling author.
I certainly have made very little money in the books I have written, and basically nothing from all the articles I have written over the decades, many of which are shared far and wide by others. But we do not do things just for the money, but that God might be glorified. It is hoped that this 5001st published article on my website will do just that – along with all the others.
Let me finish with a few quotes on writing from a diverse collection of writers – first by non-Christians, and then by Christians:
“To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.” Aristotle
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Benjamin Franklin
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Samuel Johnson
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” George Orwell
“Writing is its own reward.” Henry Miller
“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.” P. G. Wodehouse
“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” Agatha Christie
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” William Wordsworth
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Richard Bach
“Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.” Frank Zappa
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther
“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” G. K. Chesterton
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Madeleine L’Engle
“You can make anything by writing.” C. S. Lewis