On Disciplined Writing, Part 1: How to Get Started Writing

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Burkett is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS.  This is the first installment of three. This is an edited version of a post which originally ran in 2009.

Why write on writing? I have been asked to write on writing because reading is one half (the listening half) of a conversation, and because writing is a valuable practice that helps shape our thinking, reading, writing, yea, even our souls. Being literate–in the Bible, in our culture, in your vocation–includes not just ability and training but also practice in reading and writing, often becoming a joy-filled practice. Since “practice” is an inherently “religious” word, I often use it to express the stronger meaning of “spiritual discipline,” our focus here.

Since many writers begin writing with “forced” practice (where motivation is external) and only later become interested in the theory of writing, I will proceed along this “natural,” developmental process, first discussing three informal writing disciplines, second a Christian theory for writing, and third “praxis” or how theory helps us negotiate the “rhetorical situation” consisting of audience, action, and author. An assumption in all of my suggestions is that to write well we need to write often, even joyful noise. Let’s begin with three writing disciplines that, if we persist, will take us intellectually and spiritual farther than we can know.

Writing Practice 101: Three Writing Disciplines.

1. Keep a Spiritual Journal. While journaling is not the only kind of writing, it is often the most enjoyable and helps people become comfortable expressing themselves (for no one is watching or listening, right?). One favorite way to keep a spiritual journal is to “Bible study with a pen.” The best Bible-study tool ever invented is pen and paper, so if you, my dear reader, ignore all else I write, try this: Bring pen and paper to your next devotional Bible study, and see how far your sentences will take you in Holy Writ.

While you read the Scriptures, you can record fascinating word studies, cross-references, allusions, personal applications, personal prayers, and how God through the grace in Christ is answering your prayers. Few things are more exciting! As you write and develop confidence, you may wish to compose your own psalm, proverb, or epistle. The important practice is disciple-like discipline, a practice that will give you much joy as you proceed.

As a personal testimony, if redemption of the mind is a process, for me (and for many others) it began in college with free writing in a journal, with the struggle to perceive and describe what I read, felt, saw, and experienced with others and with the Lord.

2. Write Personal Letters. If you enjoy the social outlet of communicating with an attentive audience, you should consider making letter writing your writing discipline. For instance, on Sundays you may spend the Lord’s Day writing a letter or two to friends, family members, or missionaries whom you support and pray for. This practice may mean supplementing (or dropping) that text-messaging machine and investing in a more intimate relationship with your readers. Much like a journal with a direct audience, in a letter you can share all that’s appropriate, develop valuable relationships, and become a better writer to boot.

3. Imitate Your Favorite Authors. While it’s true that “the good reader writes the book,” as developing writers we should read with a certain question in mind. Your friends and professors will ask, “What does it mean?” but you should also ask of your favorite books, “How can this author help me to become a better writer?” In fact, the classical practice of imitatio (imitating great authors and orators) was (until recently) the dominant mode of advanced writing instruction, helping students to learn to write stylized, emphatic, or poignant phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

The idea of imitatio is not to imitate the meaning but to imitate the form of a fine sentence, paying attention to sentence structure, such as balanced coordination, parallel phrasing, punctuation, use of modifiers, and sound and rhythm. In a journal (or anywhere you write), consider imitating your favorite sentences by your favorite speakers and authors.

Writing is like running: the hardest step is the one out the door, so seek to set a routine; for instance, set aside a time each day or each week wherein you just write.topodin

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