Learn how to write.
That’s it. That’s the big mystery. You become a better nonfiction writer by becoming a better writer. Mind-blowing, I know.
Here’s something I want all Christian writers to burn into their memories: a good message is not enough to make a good book. Poor writing can muddle and dismantle a message, rendering it ineffective. Books do not write themselves just because you’re doing it for Jesus. You don’t learn how to run a food pantry just by praying over it neither do you write a book that way. Nonfiction writing is still writing, and writing is an art.
Case and point: The Well-Played Life by Leonard Sweet. Great message, horrible book. In explaining why, I’ll also give you writers several pointers on how to write well. You can’t learn everything in one blog post, but I hope that as a writer, reader and artist, I can help you along the way.
A good tool belt does not a carpenter make. I bet Leonard Sweet thinks he’s clever. He knows all the writing tricks there are: metaphors, alliteration, rhyming, juxtaposition, puns, anagrams, life examples, etc. Unfortunately, good tools do not make a good carpenter; they can only enhance one. Tools in the hands of a bad writer are nothing more than gimmicks.
Bad Example: Sweet pulled out a massive yarn about how Rock/Paper/Scissors is an all-inclusive metaphor for Christianity. Yeah, it made sense. Yeah, he connected every last facet of the game to the Bible. And yeah, it was totally contrived. Sweet tried way too hard to make something brilliant and only stretched himself thin. The same point could have been made better without pages and pages of ever-slimming metaphor.
Tools aren’t enough. You must know how to use them properly.
Kill your babies. This is a writing phrase that means to cut out anything that doesn’t push the book forward. Even if you love a certain part, even if you did hours of research for something, if it doesn’t help the book, cut it. Jon Acuff recently wrote great post about this, so click here to learn more from the master.
Bad Example: Chapter 15 of The Well-Played Life is called “Angry Birds,” so Sweet talks about the app game and then how influential the video game industry has become. It turns out he’s talking about different kinds of angry birds and thus all his talk about video games is meaningless and wastes an entire page. Why the fuss over a page? Wasting lines and paragraphs is bad enough, but entire pages is just sad. Besides, I only gave you one example.
Watch for distractions. Imagine a man throwing candy at a parade. But every few handfulls, he throws a clarinet instead. That’s the only way I can describe Leonard Sweet’s writing in this book: some good nuggets augmented by awkward randomness that takes away from the moment.
Bad Examples: Did you know Jesus was born in a cave? If you’ve grown up around mainstream Nativity scenes, you probably don’t picture it that way. Sweet does (p. 72) and doesn’t bother to explain himself. On page 115, Sweet mentions the destructive powers of bad words. But then on pages 144-145, he seems to say that swearing can be okay at times. Instead of hearing his point, the reader is distracted by the contradiction. On page 152, Sweet calls someone “the world’s leading scholar of creativity.” How on God’s green Earth is that even measurable?
They may seem small, but a tiny rock in your shoe can ruin your walk. Little distractions take you out of the moment like a foul note takes you out of a good worship song. Smooth writing keeps readers where they need to be to accept whatever it is you’re trying to say.
Consider your audience. One of Sweet’s sections is about people who are ages 0-30. He never once speaks to them. He speaks to people raising children and shows them how to do so properly. But in doing so, he completely forgot how many 0-30-year-olds are out on their own now. Why didn’t he help them out, too?
A good writer must, must, must step into his reader’s shoes. To do this, you need readers from your target audience. I’m writing Christian fiction, so I want Christians to preview my book. In my fantasy works, I want fantasy and non-fantasy fans alike to read my drafts to give me perspectives on both sides. My wife is my first editor and points out the parts that weren’t described properly because I already saw the scene in my head, so I skipped it.
As my wife constantly has to remind me, “Just because you know what you’re talking about doesn’t mean the reader does.”
Bring it down to Earth. There’s nothing more frustrating than inspiration without application. It’s like being taken to a restaurant, show the food, told how delicious everything is, and then being taken home without a bite. It’s not just frustrating, it’s downright cruel.
Bad Example: The entire book. In The Well-Played Life, there is remarkably little real-life application. There’s a lot of talk about how life should be lived, but not much about how to do it. In Sweet’s case, he talks about how Christian life is more play than work and that things we call work should actually be play. But he rarely if ever stops to show the reader how that actually happens.
This isn’t a scholarly thesis; it’s a book. If you can’t tell your audience how to achieve what you’re telling them to do, then you’re not helping anybody.
Use your references wisely. A good reference page gives credit where credit is due without wasting reading space. But you must keep this as simple as possible or you’ll have your audience flipping back and forth every two pages. And it must not be used in place of actual explanation.
Bad Examples: Sweet quotes the Bible, but puts the quotes in the reference pages. This isn’t necessary. Just quote it. If you quote the Bible, quote the Bible. Worse yet, on page 150, Sweeet said that sometimes the Christian life is like learning to dance the salsa, then he put a citation mark on this totally innocuous phrase. Flip to the back, the note basically said, “To read a lot more on this totally self-explanatory phrase, please read my other book.” (p. 272) Completely unnecessary. The man even has citations in his Acknowledgements section!
The worst of them all was on page 67 where he mentions “The Song of Jesus.” Did you know Jesus sang a song? Neither did I, but Sweet doesn’t describe it. Fortunately, there’s a citation mark, so I followed it back to the notes. Sadly, the note essentially said, “To know what the heck I’m talking about here, read my other book.” (p. 268). You can’t throw out a questionable phrase without explaining it in-text. Good books don’t require homework. And good reference pages aren’t sales pitches.
Keep Learning. Like I said, one blog post can’t teach everything and I’m far from the greatest instructor. Read more books on the craft of writing, talk with other writers, read books by writers in your area, and definitely get a reader’s perspective on your book. Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it isn’t art.
John Eldredge is one of my favorite writers. He has powerful messages, but knows how to use words to hammer home that message and touch the hearts of his audience. Why? Because he’s been there and he knows that hurt. He considers his audience.
Jon Acuff is generally humorous, but in his hilarious book Stuff Christians Like, he allows himself to get serious at the end. He gave a fantastic metaphor about a boy who accidentally put mustard on his ice cream, but was too ashamed of his mistake to fix it, so he ate it anyway. Acuff then basically says, “I don’t know what’s in your bowl, but you don’t have to eat it. Jesus wants to give you a new bowl.” That’s a powerful and vivid metaphor. That’s using writing tools properly.
Craig Groeschel is a pastor who knows how to bring his messages incredibly relevant, lining his books with actual examples from his own life and the lives of others, or simply talking about real-life people and situations. He even talks about how he’s failed at his own advice. He’s real. He brings it down to Earth.
These are the writers who fill my shelves and whose messages have touched me. I say nothing bad of Leonard Sweet’s character, his life, or his message. I’m merely talking about a bad book because bad books clutter good messages and ruin them. It’s a very simple and obvious principle: if you’re going to write…learn how.