Growing as a writer is both very difficult and very simple. It is difficult in the sense that writers are always juggling various components of their craft in order to better communicate. Some of these components are on the lower level of the language hierarchy, dealing with words and clauses. Building your vocabulary, using new sentence structures, and practicing various means of eloquence within those sentences (assonance and consonance, parallelism, etc.) are a few examples. Other components are on a higher level of the language hierarchy, the level of discourse (rather than the level of words or clauses). Writing unified, coherent, and developed paragraphs; organizing your flow of thought within an essay; and maintaining a consistent tone of voice might fall into this category. All of this is quite complex, and we cannot work on all of the above components at once. We focus on bits and pieces. This also means that, as a writer, you never stop growing. There is always more to do. This is intimidating and exhausting for many of us, but invigorating at the same time. However, regardless of whether we feel exhausted or energized in this process, one thing is clear: growing as a writer is difficult! There is an endless queue of improvements, and there are always new authors to read and learn from, which leads us to the next point.
Growing as a writer can be very simple. In my experience, there are only three steps:
1. Find compelling and provocative prose to read.
2. Ask yourself how the author is achieving the effect that he or she seems to achieve.
3. Begin experimenting with what you have learned.
Consider an example. George Orwell has long been recognized as one of the greatest prose writers in the English language. For some time, Orwell lived among the poor and homeless of northern England during the early 1930s. He would travel from hostel to hostel with a down-and-out crowd, drawing on his experiences with them for many of his later essays and novels. Here are a few sentences that have always stuck with me from his essay “The Spike”:
Littered on the grass, we seemed dingy, urban riff-raff. We defiled the scene,
like sardine-tins and paper bags on the seashore.
What does that description do to you? What effect does it have? Doesn’t it make you feel sympathy for those who are treated like trash? Sardine-tins and paper bags — the foul-smelling, wind-blown refuse of the world. We know that these people are not garbage; they are image-bearers of the Trinitarian God. They reflect him and are the beloved objects of his redemption, which has been delivered through his Son and applied by the Spirit. These people are not trash; they are treasure!
Now, ask your question: how did Orwell do that? How did he move you to sympathy? It is not just what he says; it is how he says it. That’s the key to growing as a writer: figuring out how the author did what he did. Here are a few things I noticed about Orwell’s prose that makes it so powerful.
- Concrete imagery. Readers love concrete imagery; their minds can grasp an image more readily than they can grasp an idea or abstraction. Sardine-tins and paper bags — right away we get images to work with, something that communicates. We grasp it and contrast it with the referent: poor and homeless people.
- Rhythm. We don’t often think about rhythm when we read, but the latter part of Orwell’s second sentence has a cadence to it. Sar-dine tins and pa-per bags: a pair of two-syllable + one-syllable word combinations. The pattern makes the prose more memorable.
- Consonance. Note the repetition of “d” and “r” sounds in the first sentence: LitteRed on the gRass, we seemed dingy, uRban Riff-Raff.
These are some of the linguistic details that help to empower the message of the author. This, in other words, is how he does what he does. There is always something you can find in an author’s prose that will help you understand how he or she achieved a certain effect. That is step two.
The final step is looking for a place in your own writing to begin experimenting with what you’ve learned. Where might an important sentence in an essay or article call for sharpness or elegance? Be selective and intentional about where you begin experimenting, and see if readers notice. One of the ways you will be able to tell that they have noticed is if they remember your words.
That, in short, is my approach to growing as a writer. As Carl Trueman once told me, learn to read well, and slowly but surely, you will find that you have begun to write well.
Let me end in saying that learning to write well is a matter of imaging well . . . imaging the Son of the Father in the power of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:29). It is not a matter of inflating your ego, but a matter of deflating it and letting the powerful truth of Christ burn through the dross of your expressive sin. The glory that results from an elegant use of words belongs to Christ, not to you, even though you will be tempted to claim it for yourself every time. Remember that the most beautiful Word ever communicated — the Son eternally spoken by the Father in the presence of the Spirit — was crucified so that you might speak well by lifting up his name. That is your goal in learning to write well.