- How Write?
In a recent book on writing, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, the author, Helen Sword, addresses three important dimensions of academic writing: behavioral habits, writing habits, and the social dimension of writing. I’ll address each of those briefly in turn below.
Writing is a creative process, so be creative. I have included an entire chapter on creativity in my book Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. In my experience, people often underestimate the importance of creativity in writing. Creativity is a gift!
When is a good time to write? As much as possible, I’ve tried to work around my family schedule. In some cases, this involved getting up and writing early in the morning, as when writing my Johannine theology. In other cases, it involved doing some of my writing in our family van in the parking lot of a baseball field (my commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus).
I like writing in coffee shops or other stimulating surroundings. Also, I prefer writing in locations where people can’t find me. This helps me focus on writing without interruptions or even the possibility of interruptions. Of course, I make sure I bring with me whatever I need for a given session of writing.
Rhythms and Rituals
I like to ride my momentum and to focus on one project at a time. For example, I was able to write my part in a forthcoming volume on the Holy Spirit in only two months as I was gripped by this fascinating topic and literally couldn’t stop writing until I was done! The same was true with a recent article for a Festschrift. The subject was gripping (though still confidential), and the article, it seemed, was practically writing itself! I was just the conduit.
Learning to Write
Writing is often better caught rather than taught. I never took a formal writing class. Instead, in my early years, I tried to read everything written by D. A. Carson, my Doktorvater, and emulated his approach to publishing. Eventually, I did read several books on writing; my favorite was probably Joseph Williams’s Style.
Craft of Writing
While, as mentioned, creativity can’t really be learned, there are things we can do to become better writers. One is to consciously build our vocabulary, which was needed especially in my case since my native language is German. Also, I tried to learn to write for a popular audience, which is not always easy when one is used to write primarily for one’s scholarly peers.
As mentioned, my native language is German. In addition, I can do research in French and Spanish. My ability to do research in other languages, especially in my native German, has proven invaluable, as first-rate scholarship needs to interact with the leading writers in the field, not merely in the English-speaking world.
Writing for Others
I like to think of writing as a conversation. When I write, I genuinely try to interact with other scholars and to truly engage the current state of scholarship. I mentioned earlier that one of the “why’s” of writing is passionate persuasion.
In my scholarly work, therefore, I try to move the needle, that is, I write to actually persuade others who don’t currently hold to the view I am advocating (rather than merely “preaching to the converted,” as it were).
In order to impact current scholarship, I aim to meet on the common ground of textual, historical, linguistic, and literary evidence. In doing so, I try to focus my critique on the leading scholar(s) in the field.
Writing with Others
Collaboration with colleagues, current or former students, or senior scholars is a great way to get started, and to continue, in publishing. It also enables one to publish more than one would otherwise be able to do.
The upside of collaborative writing is that you can partner with others who have expertise in areas in which you may lack it. In my case, for example, I partnered with an Old Testament scholar in writing my hermeneutics book.
I also partnered with an Old Testament scholar in writing a book on a biblical theology of mission and collaborated with theologian Scott Swain while writing on the Trinity and with Gregg Allison while writing on the Holy Spirit.
One of the main advantages of collaborative work, as mentioned, is that you can write books more quickly than you’d be able to if you were tackling a huge task alone, such as writing a New Testament Introduction or an intermediate Greek grammar.
Writing collaboratively also has enabled me to mentor younger colleagues as well as present or former students. A special blessing has been for me to co-author two books on biblical manhood and womanhood as well as parenting with my wife.
Possible downsides in collaborative academic writing are that a collaborator may not do his or her work with excellence, or he or she may be delayed or default altogether (I’ve had all of these happen over the years).
Writing among Others
One of the most special blessings of the academic profession is the privilege of sabbaticals where one can become part of a community of scholars. Writing among others is also accomplished by active participation in a scholarly society where you can receive valuable feedback from others.
Writing is a gift from God. It can be a great channel of blessing. Virtually all of us have been impacted by something we read at one point or another. We may not have known the author personally but were moved by what they wrote. If you are called to write, God has given you a wonderful privilege. Writing is an amazing way to serve and be a blessing to others. Soli Deo gloria!